Study shows volunteer mentors have positive impacts on at-risk youth

OLYMPIA — Having the guidance of a caring adult mentor may help young people overcome symptoms of depression, according to a five-year study of 1,300 youth in Washington state. The study sheds a new and encouraging light on the effects of a positive adult role model in the lives of higher-risk youth.

More than 700 Washington state foster children and youth in Department of Social and Health Services’ Juvenile Justice and Rehabilitation programs participated in the first large-scale research study of how at-risk youth benefit from mentoring.

The study, “The Role of Risk: Mentoring Experiences and Outcomes for Youth with Varying Risk Profiles,” funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, shows that higher-risk youth benefit from mentoring in similar ways as other children.

The study showed that higher-risk youth with mentors had improvements in symptoms of depression, as well as gains in social acceptance, academic attitudes and grades. The reduction of symptoms of depression is important because almost one in four youth report symptoms of depression. Research has also linked depression to a host of other short- and long-term problems for youth.

The study involved more than 1,300 youth, ages 8 to 15, from seven programs serving young people in Washington. Oversight and support for the project was provided by Washington State Mentors.

Washington State Mentors is a volunteer organization that promotes and supports quality mentoring that fosters positive youth development and academic success. The group developed the initiative for this study and worked with programs to ensure that the mentor/youth matches were supported by strong, evidence-based practices.

DSHS works closely with Washington Mentors. Deputy Director of Washington Mentors Tom Pennella is a DSHS staff member who manages mentoring programs. “DSHS recognizes the value a mentor brings to a young person. We support programs like these that show positive evidence-based results,” Pennella said.

Washington Lt. Gov. Brad Owen, founding chair of the board of directors of Washington Mentors said, “We are excited to see that the science backs common sense. Having a positive, caring adult who is deeply involved in the life of a youth is critical, not only to the well-being of that young person, but also incredibly important to that person’s future stake in life.

“We can take the information from this study and use it to build on the great work that mentoring organizations are doing around the state as they work with youth, especially our at-risk youth,” Owen said.

Materials from the study will be adapted into tools for use by mentoring programs, including a Youth Risk Assessment Survey that measures youth’s risk factors when they enroll. Information about the study’s results will be shared with mentoring programs across Washington and the nation.

While youth mentoring has been thoroughly researched, relatively little is known about whether mentoring benefits at-risk youth. At the same time, youth mentoring programs are being asked to serve more “higher risk” young people. The knowledge gained from this study can help mentoring organizations properly train and support mentors based on the specific risks the youth is facing.

DSHS Assistant Secretary of Juvenile Justice and Rehabilitation John Clayton said “I have for a long time believed in and supported mentoring. The data found in this report verifies that mentoring is a valuable and meaningful opportunity for the youth served by the Department and that the investments in mentoring have an impact on the lives of young people.”

The study looked closely at the backgrounds of participating youth and their mentors, the mentoring relationships that formed, the program supports that were offered and the benefits youth received — and assessed how these varied for youth with different “profiles” of risk.

Mentors who received early training and consistent program support met more often and had longer-lasting relationships with the young people they mentor. Youth whose mentors received training also reported higher-quality relationships.

The study will have a lasting impact on the mentoring field, showing that with the right kinds of programmatic support, volunteer mentors can also help higher-risk youth make gains in a number of key areas of development.


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