Mentors can spot mental health troubles in mentees

Zimmerman, M. A. (2010). Natural mentors, mental health, and risk behaviors: A longitudinal analysis of African American adolescents transitioning into adulthood. American Journal of Community Psychology, 46(1-2), 36-48. doi: 10.1007/s10464-010-9325-x

Summarized by Jessica Cunningham

Background:

As adolescents grow into adults, they are faced with a number of difficult transitions when becoming more independent. Transition periods at any life stage are fraught with risk, but for emerging adults, those risks largely come in the form of developing mental health problems, and engaging in risky drug and sex behaviors.

Generally, research shows that the more social support a person has during these times of transition and risk, the more likely it is that they will not encounter the pitfalls of that particular time period. Research has also shown that mentors can help reduce risk behaviors in children and adolescents, along with reducing mental health problems.

The researchers in this study specifically wanted to examine whether or not having a mentor during late adolescence (senior year of high school) impacted the trajectory of developing mental health problems, substance abuse problems, or engaging in risky sexual behaviors during the first five years of adulthood.

Method:

Participants in this study were 615 African American emerging adults as part of a larger study on school dropout in a large, high-poverty Midwestern city. Data came from the fourth wave when participants were seniors in high school, and participants were interviewed once each year for four years after completing high school (except for the first year after they graduated). Inclusion criteria for the larger study were: an 8th grade GPA of 3.0 or lower, and having no diagnoses of mental health problems or learning disabilities in school records.

Measures:

The researchers used the Brief Symptom Inventory to assess depressive symptoms. The researchers created three items to assess sexual risk behaviors; frequency of intercourse within the last year, frequency of condom use within the last year, and number of partners within the last year, and were standardized before being added together to form a scale.

To measure substance use, the researchers used questions from the Monitoring the Future study to assess frequency of alcohol, marijuana, and tobacco use. To measure stress, the researchers gave the participants the 14 item Perceived Stress Scale, which measures the frequencies with which participants have experienced different symptoms of stress within the last month. Parental support was also measured on a 5-item scale for each parent—items included “I rely on [them] for emotional support; I have a deep sharing relationship with [them].”

Participants were also asked about the presence of natural mentors; for the purposes of this study, a natural mentor was defined as a non-parental adult older than 25 who they considered to be their mentor, or a person who they could go to for support or someone who inspired them to do their best.

The researchers used hierarchical linear modeling to create growth curves for all of the outcomes in this study and performed analyses in two waves. The first accounts for how much variance exists between participants for each of the outcome variables, and the second does the same with the inclusion of the presence or absence of a natural mentor.

Results:

Sixty-three percent of the sample identified a natural mentor, and just over half identified a family member as their mentor. Participants with a natural mentor experienced significant decreases in depression over time, as did those with high levels of maternal and paternal support.

In terms of gendered effects; females in this sample generally experienced increases in depression over time, but those with natural mentors experienced less steep increases in depression. Males, on the other hand, experienced steeper decreases in depression symptomology over time in the presence of a natural mentor.

Those with natural mentors also experienced decreased sexual risk patterns over time, as well as those with greater maternal support. However, having a natural mentor did not predict patterns of substance abuse.

Discussion and conclusion:

The findings of this study indicate that natural mentors can help promote resiliency among emerging adults in terms of mental health and sexual health risks.

Young adults without natural mentors exhibited higher sexual risk behaviors over time. This was particularly the case in the two years immediately after high school, where lower levels of adult supervision coupled with higher levels of individual freedom make it easier for young people to engage in risky sexual behaviors. Youth with mentors did not display the same increase, suggesting that having a non-parental adult might help youth to navigate interpersonal relationships and make healthy decisions.

Supportive non-parental adults provide valuable coping resources for adolescents making the transition into adulthood. Their support may also reduce perceived stress, which may create a “positive feedback loop” wherein support reduces perceived stress, which reduces depressive symptomology.

Although the mechanism through which mentors can have a positive impact on mental health is not explored in this study, a takeaway for mentors and program coordinators might be that simply “being there” for youth at risk may be what they need the most.

Talking about mental health and sexual health can be difficult or uncomfortable for mentors, but if a mentee brings them up, it means they trust their mentor to help them through these things, and it’s therefore important for the mentor to not push these issues aside. In terms of mental health problems, periods of high stress (such as in the transition between adolescence and adulthood) tend to bring them out, and catching them early usually leads to the best prognosis for the person affected.

Mentors, by virtue of having frequent, one-on-one contact with mentees, are in a good position to catch mental health problems before they cause major harm.

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