By Suzanne Tough
and Nicole Letourneau
University of Calgary
The youth of any society constitute the promise of the future – and many of our youth are in trouble.
They’re growing up in a divided society. Ethnic, gender and political tensions are at seemingly combustible levels – not just south of the border but in Canada, too. Their employment is frequently temporary and unstable. And buying a home appears impossible for many, as inequity increases across society.
Youth most affected by such tensions and disparities may shrug their shoulders and wonder, ‘Why bother?’
But there’s one thing we can do to help at-risk Canadian youth forge a better future: provide positive mentorship.
Research shows that mentorship programs for youth improve school success and academic performance. For example, 45 per cent of at-risk youth with an adult mentor are enrolled in higher education compared to only 29 per cent of their unmentored peers. Mentorships also reduce drug and alcohol abuse, engagement in violence and with the law, and improve peer relationships, social skills and employment.
Unfortunately, too many young people in Canada don’t have an adult mentor.
Thirty per cent of youth report never having an adult mentor of any kind. Rates are higher for youth most at risk – including those from impoverished backgrounds and those with an incarcerated parent.
Mentorship programs for youth make good economic sense, too.
According to a 2014 report by the National Mentoring Partnership, every dollar invested in youth mentoring results in a $3 return on investment to society by, for example, reducing justice and health services costs, and improving employment (and thus government tax revenue).
And training programs for mentors, such as those led by Big Brothers Big Sisters and the Boys and Girls Clubs, ensure mentors learn the skills they need to succeed.
We must make certain that youth who need mentorship have adult men and women who are trained and ready to help. Youth often struggle to make sense of the many complex social issues, such as gender identity, immigration or refugee resettlement, racism and sexism.
Mentorship can foster shared understanding and respect, and help bridge gaps between contemporary values and traditional customs and habits. Mentors are the role models and teachers we need to help shape an inclusive and civic society.
So it’s a sad reality that almost 80 per cent of youth considered most at risk because of repeated school absence, school expulsion, course failure or grade repetition do not have the benefits of structured mentorship.
Youth mentorship should not be left to chance. What can be done?
- Normalize, popularize and celebrate mentorship. Communities, schools, not-for-profit organizations and the private sector can embed mentorship programs in strategic planning, evaluation and investment planning. The private sector can recognize employee contributions to mentorship the same way participation in other corporate philanthropy is celebrated.
- At-risk youth can be identified by teachers, in the juvenile justice system and in child welfare/foster-care systems. Matching them to the best mentors could dramatically improve the life chances for these youth. A mentorship match should be standard of care for them.
- As early as elementary school age, children at risk of academic failure should be identified and provided with quality mentorship. These include those with poor attendance and/or who struggle with math and reading.
This latter point was perfectly articulated in one of our studies by an impoverished young pregnant woman who suffered from a serious addiction. “You would have had to get me in Grade 3 to prevent me from ending up where I am now,” she said. Her words have haunted us for more than a decade. She spent her childhood and youth doing the best she could to survive in her environment – and society failed her.
At a time when ‘fear of the other’ is broadcast on a daily basis, the potential for an inclusive and compassionate society is threatened. Mentorship and engagement with those around us can help build a diverse and peaceful society we can all be proud of.
Suzanne Tough is a professor in the Cumming School of Medicine and Nicole Letourneau is a professor in the Faculties of Nursing and Medicine at the University of Calgary.