Mentoring Youth With Mental Health Issues: Training Mentors to Be Empathic

Posted by jmeyer on June 1, 2022

There have been numerous discussions and reports about the mental health issues experienced by youth today. New and unique stressors associated with the pandemic have affected children’s academic, family, and social adjustment, as well as their mental health. And mentors have had increasing concerns about their mentee’s mental health as well as other stressors such as family finances, access to food, and school challenges during this time as well (Kaufman et al., 2022).

Youth mentoring programs are well aware of the fact that all mentoring relationships may face challenges as they grow and develop over time. However, being aware of the additional challenges that may arise in a mentoring relationship due to mental health problems in mentees can be essential for achieving positive outcomes in youth. Fortunately, there are resources available to help mentoring programs better support mentors, mentees, and parents of mentees.

Building long-term mentoring relationship as a key goal

For youth with mental health issues, being able to sustain a long-term relationship can provide one of the best outcomes. In fact, DeWit and colleagues (2016) found that mentoring relationships of 12 months or longer were associated with increased mental health and social benefits for youth compared to youth in shorter relationships. Notably, mentees in general, especially those in longer relationships, were less depressed and socially anxious, and had healthier coping skills than mentees in shorter relationships. Taking the time to create a strong, positive relationship can play an important role in mentoring youth with mental health issues.

Youth-initiated mentoring

Another option that youth mentoring programs may want to explore is to have mentees choose their mentors rather than matching or assigning their mentees to mentors. This type of mentoring program, Youth-Initiated Mentoring (YIM), has been found to have many potential benefits that may be supportive to mentees with mental health problems.

Youth-initiated mentoring relationships can be “remarkably long-lasting,” with 75% of mentees staying connected to their mentors almost two years after the program commitment ended (Van Dam et al., 2021). The authors found that in addition to being more comfortable with their mentor, mentees were also more likely to form a long-term relationship with their mentors, particularly, with those who had a history of similar experiences related to a targeted problem (e.g., growing up in a community of high violence, having had a substance abuse problem).

Being empathic builds friendships

Being empathic means trying to understand a person’s experience from their point of view and connecting with what they are feeling. Empathy is a key building block for creating any kind of close, caring relationship. The relationship between a mentor and their mentee must be built on a shared level of empathy and respect, in order to be productive, caring, and holistic for those involved.

Below are four tips on how mentors can use empathy to better connect with their mentees about sensitive issues (Spencer, 2022).

  1. Be adaptable.

    Mentors should try not to have rigid or unrealistically positive expectations of their mentee or their mentoring relationship. Instead, mentors should be adaptable and see what happens as the relationship develops.

  2. “Similar” does not mean “same.”

    When mentors have faced stressful or challenging situations in their lives that are similar to their mentee’s life experiences, they should understand that “similar” does not mean “same.” Mentors should take a minute to think about how their experiences are similar to their mentee’s experiences, but also think about how their situations are different. Understanding that everyone’s experiences in life are unique can help mentors to be more curious about their mentee and not make assumptions that they understand what their mentee is thinking or feeling.

  3. Listen and learn.

    Mentors should be aware of trying to “fix” their mentee’s issues. Instead, they should just listen to their mentee and learn from what they are saying.

  4. Keep emotions in check.

    Many mentees will have challenging and complex backgrounds. Mentors need to focus on being a positive and supportive presence who is also reliable and consistent.

Mentees can find value in a long-lasting mentoring relationship, as it helps them develop healthy, supportive, and empathic relationships beyond their mentoring program, following the model set by a healthy relationship with their mentor. The authors noted that if mentors feel like their attempts to be empathic didn’t land with their mentee, then they should acknowledge it, and continue working on building trust and understanding in their relationship.

How mentoring program staff can help mentors address unhealthy behaviors in mentees

In addition to empathy, mentoring researcher Dr. Samuel McQuillen (2022) has provided additional suggestions about how mentors can respond in situations when mentees exhibit behaviors that may be unhealthy or risky (for example, when their mentee is struggling with anxiety or depression):

Most importantly, when youth have mental health issues, mentors need to know their role is not to be a counselor, therapist, or mental health care provider. Mentors need to receive pre-match training on the fact that these are roles that they should not play in their relationship with their mentees, even if the mentor is themselves a mental health professional by training or vocation. Mentoring Central’s core, pre-match training program, Building the Foundation, provides mentors with clear definitions and examples of the roles that mentors should and should not play in their mentoring relationship. If a mentee needs professional mental health care or a mentor is unsure how to respond to the behaviors or mental health needs of their mentees, the support staff at the mentoring program should be sure the mentor knows they can reach out to a supervisor or match support specialist for guidance.

The key: Training your mentors in empathic listening skills

All of these tips can be helpful for mentoring program staff members to be aware of when mentors need coaching or training in better supporting their mentees. However, mentors also need systematic training in how to express these behaviors. Mentoring Central offers another training option for mentors on empathy-building skills as part of an online asynchronous course on relationship-building skills. The course, entitled Building and Maintaining the Relationship, teaches mentors about three key behaviors of effective mentors, including being empathic, trustworthy, and authentic. The course not only teaches mentors how to demonstrate these skills in the context of a mentoring relationship, but it also includes real-world scenarios and “how-to” tips mentors can use to successfully develop and maintain positive relationships with their mentees.