The U.S. surgeon general recently issued a stark warning about the state of mental health among youth. One in three high school students and half of female students reported persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness, an overall increase of 40% from 2009. The US is in a mental health crisis. Even before the pandemic, mental health challenges were the leading cause of disability and poor life outcomes in young people. Socioeconomically disadvantaged youth are two to three times more likely to develop mental health conditions than peers with higher socioeconomic status. Since the pandemic began, symptoms of anxiety, depression, and other mental health disorders have increased.
Big Brothers Big Sisters takes a relationship focused approach to mental health. Taking a relationships-focused approach to the youth mental health crisis does not mean ignoring a young person’s need for professional mental health care, or the systemic barriers that prevent far too many young people from accessing appropriate care. Only 20 to 30 percent of children who need mental health and related care services receive such services, and these rates are even lower in ethnic minority populations, many of which are exposed to even higher levels of risk.
While mental health care professionals and schools play an essential role in supporting the well-being and social/emotional development of youths, the responsibility cannot fall solely on their shoulders. Parents, neighbors, coaches, and community organizations, such as Big Brothers Big Sisters, all have a vital role to play if we are to ensure every young person has a stable, supportive relationship with an adult.
Most often stemming from trauma, more than 90% of the youths we serve through our youth mentorship programs enter our programs having experienced mental health symptoms, such as anxiety or depression. Trauma, and its side effects, can have lifelong impacts. In addition to harmful psychological and physical health impacts, trauma impacts a child’s relationships with their parents, peers, and teachers, making academic success much more difficult to achieve.
The mental health crisis, at its core, is a crisis of connectedness. Connectedness is an important protective factor for youth that can reduce the likelihood of a variety of health risk behaviors. Connectedness refers to a sense of being cared for, supported, and belonging. Youth who feel connected at school and home are 66% less likely to experience negative health outcomes related to sexual risk, substance use, violence, and mental health. While technology platforms have improved our lives in important ways, we know that for many people, they can have adverse effects. These tools can pit us against each other, reinforce negative behaviors like bullying and exclusion, and undermine the safe and supportive environments youth need and deserve. Mentoring, at its core, guarantees a young person that there is someone who cares about them, assures them they are not alone in dealing with day-to-day challenges, and reminds them that they matter. Yet one in three youth are growing up without this critical asset.
Strong support from a caring adult operates as a buffer against the stresses and hardships inherent in life, especially during critical periods of development such as adolescence. Whether going to community events, doing homework together, or just hanging out and talking, over time, our Bigs and Littles build valuable and meaningful relationships, and the impact lasts a lifetime. The Bigs in our program provide their Littles with a sense of stability, purpose, and belonging, all of which are critical to young people’s healthy development and well-being.
Being a mentor is personally rewarding, is inexpensive, and only takes about 4 – 6 hours per month. In fact, many mentors believe their mentee has made a significant and positive impact in their own lives.
Research shows that the most important thing youth need to be resilient is a stable and committed relationship with a supportive adult. Mentoring, especially when paired with our Trauma-Informed Care training for mentors, is a critical component in supporting student’s well-being and social and emotional development. According to a recent study from Prevention Science, youths who have been in a mentoring relationship lasting twelve or more months report significantly fewer behavioral problems and fewer symptoms of depression and social anxiety than non-mentored youth. In turn, mentored youths are more likely to improve their academic performance, strengthen their relationships with family and friends, and are less likely to engage in risky behaviors. Last year, of the Littles we served through our programs, 92% reported depressive symptoms that had improved or had not worsened. In addition, 94% reported risky behaviors that had improved or not worsened, 88% reported improved self-confidence, 80% improved their school attendance, and 78% improved their overall academic performance.
Since the pandemic, there has been a significant uptick in youth mental health issues. Concerns about a child’s mental health are often what prompt parents and teachers to enroll students in the Big Brothers Big Sisters program.
Over the last two years, our agency has experienced a substantial increase in the number of parents/guardians seeking a mentor for their child. Knowing that unaddressed mental health issues in children and adolescents become increasingly more complicated to resolve over time, Big Brothers Big Sisters top priority is to secure the volunteer mentors, and funding needed, to provide mentoring services for the vast number of at-risk young people in need.
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