By Levi van Dam, Jean Rhodes, and Renee Spencer, JAMA Psychiatry, April 28, 2021
Although adolescents have lower COVID-19 infection rates compared with adults, the pandemic is taking a toll on young people’s mental health. There have been multiple reports of increases in mental health challenges for adolescents during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, including a rapid systematic review indicating that adolescents are now more likely to experience high rates of depression and anxiety. This calls for a response from clinical services to offer support and early intervention where possible and be prepared for an increase in mental health problems. It also calls for the mobilization of social networks, which are beneficial for health and can function as a buffer against various individual and contextual risks. Especially for adolescents, supportive relationships with caring adults have been found to be a protective factor of the development for mental health problems. Therefore, besides societal awareness of the potential effect of these supportive relationships, clinicians, social workers, and teachers should facilitate youths’ connections with natural mentors.
Supportive, nonparental adults play a critical role in the lives of adolescents, helping them navigate their identities, and providing support that can offset considerable individual and contextual risks, while promoting resilience across a range of important academic, behavioral, and health domains (eg, van Dam et al). Research indicates that the benefits of such relationships for mental and relational health can last into adulthood, even for those who experienced significant childhood adversities. Yet adolescents from ethnic minority groups as well as socioeconomically disadvantaged families are less likely to have such supportive and caring relationships with nonparental adults relative to their more privileged peers (eg, Raposa et al). Despite considerable efforts to foster such connections through formal youth mentoring programs that match youths with adult volunteers, recruiting enough adults to meet the demands of vulnerable youths and their families has been a persistent problem, as has retaining these mentors once matched with mentees. Youth-initiated mentoring (YIM), a hybrid approach in which youths and their families are helped to identify and recruit caring adult mentors from within their existing social networks and to maintain such relationships, is a promising strategy for addressing these problems and expanding the reach of youth mentoring.