How mentors can promote positive outcomes for gay young adults

Drevon, D. D., Almazan, E. P., Jacob, S., Rhymer, K. N. (2015). Impact of mentors during adolescence on outcomes among gay young adults. Journal of Homosexuality, 63(6), 821-837. doi: 10.1080/00918369.2015.1112583

Summarized by Jessica Cunningham

 

Introduction:

LGBTQ adolescents are at a risk of a whole host of negative outcomes, including poor school achievement, risky health behaviors, mental health problems, and suicidality. Previous research has shown that victimization may be the reason why these youth are so at risk, and that parental and social support may mediate this risk. Therefore, LGBTQ adolescents stand to benefit from the increased social support that mentors provide.

The researchers of this study wanted to investigate whether or not natural mentoring relationships formed during adolescence would act as a buffer and prevent youth from developing mental health and substance use problems and promote educational achievement.

 

Methods:

The researchers in this study decided to use the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health to investigate their questions. The AddHealth dataset is a nationally representative dataset that has been following the same group of 15,701 people since they were between the ages of 14-18 in the 1990’s to the present. It is important to note that the AddHealth questionnaire does not include questions to identify transgender people or those who may not prefer the labels of lesbian, gay, or bisexual. As a result, the sample of sexual minority youth investigated in the present study will only include youth who identified as lesbian, gay, or bisexual (N=409)

The researchers operationalized presence or absence of a mentor by first looking at people who answered affirmatively to the question “other than your parents or stepparents, has an adult made a positive difference in your life since you were 14 years old?” at Wave 3. Anyone who responded that their mentor was a younger sibling, partner/spouse, or friend were considered non-mentored, as were those who developed mentoring relationships after the age of 18.

Approximately 53% of the sample was considered mentored according to the criteria set above. Most of the sample was White (80-83%), female (60-62%), and around 21 years of age at Wave 3.

In terms of educational outcomes, the researchers looked at whether or not participants graduated from high school, how many years they had attended school, and involvement in the military, participation in college, and current employment.

For psychological well-being, they looked at measures of depression, self-esteem, and suicidal ideation.

For substance use and abuse, they examined the responses to questions pertaining to illegal drug use, and problems caused by alcohol at school or work.

The researchers also controlled for gender, race, age, and parental support in their analyses. For statistical analyses, the researchers first conducted bivariate correlations between outcomes and presence or absence of mentoring relationships, and then ran regressions controlling for the above variables to see if these relationships remained significant after the controls.

 

Results:

If valid sample weights were not available for certain analyses, the participants would be dropped (e.g. high school completion), but not dropped for analyses as a whole, so the results below are ranges instead of exact values.

The mean rating of parental support on a five point likert scale was 4.46 to 4.49. Eighty three percent of participants received a high school diploma, and 85% reported participation in military, college, or current employment. Fifty seven percent of participants reported using illegal drugs within the past year, but only 17% reported problems at school or work due to their drug or alcohol use.

Mentorship was significantly associated with high school exit status, even when controlling for age, race, gender and parental support. However, having a natural mentor was not significantly associated with any continuous outcomes.

 

Discussion and Conclusion:

The findings of this study are significant because youth with natural mentors were three times as likely to graduate high school compared to those without. Natural mentors may give LGB youth the tools they need to cope with high school which can often be a source of strife for LGB adolescents as they typically experience violence and abuse at school.  Mentors may act as protective factors against the risk of not graduating from high school. Graduating from high school makes it more likely for someone to pursue higher education, which previous research has shown to be tied to higher earnings and better health outcomes during adulthood, which may also help to insulate LGB youth from falling victim to the many risks that they face.

Surprisingly, having a natural mentor was not significantly associated with psychological wellbeing or lower rates of drug and alcohol use. Previous research on different populations using the AddHealth dataset have found the opposite, but this may be explained by the high levels of parental support reported by this sample. Since youth already have relatively good relationships with their parents, the impact of mentors may be washed out.

The authors of this study suggest that, in order to help foster positive outcomes for LBG youth, schools and policy makers should develop mentoring programs specifically targeted at helping LGB youth graduate high school, and develop policies and programs to make schools more welcoming and tolerant of diverse populations.

 

Takeaways for Mentors and Mentoring Programs

Many programs have mandatory reporting protocols in place for when a mentee exhibits dangerous, self-injurious thoughts or behaviors. This research highlights the importance of such protocols and serves as a caution against mentors trying to take on too much on their own when attempting to support their mentee, or of programs placing too heavy a burden on their mentors when it comes to navigating serious mental health issues.

There are a couple of key takeaways from this research. First, training mentors to provide a supportive presence for LGB mentees can help to provide complementary, or even compensatory social support for a vulnerable mentee. Broadly, social support has been found to promote improved outcomes for youth, and mentors can play a key role as part of that network.

A second takeaway is that ensuring mentors are able recognize the signs of suicidal ideation can serve as a potentially life-saving protective layer for youth who are struggling. This includes recognition of the signs of suicidal ideation, as well as a clear plan for the mentor to follow when reporting the behavior. The program itself should also have clear protocols for which agencies should be contacted in the event that a mentee is reported as having suicidal ideation.

While it may occur less frequently than more common problems mentees face during adolescence, a clear, defined plan in place for program staff and mentors to report suicide risk has the potential to save a life.

 

To read the abstract of the research article, click here.

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