How mentor/mentee relationships can benefit children struggling with mental health issues
Countless studies find children diagnosed with depression and anxiety benefit from forming mentor/mentee relationships through programs such as Big Brothers Big Sisters and Strong Women Strong Girls. Having a mentor provides mentees with a stable support system while they are navigating adolescence as well as their own mental health issues.
By Hannah Walden
Bailey Sweet, a product of divorced parents, takes great pleasure in a child mentorship program she says helped a young girl emerge from a perpetual state of sadness.
Gina Foreman struggled for years with her anxiety before her diagnosis, now she uses techniques and supports she uses for herself for the girls she mentors.
Professor Leatra Tate has more than experience and understanding of the mind as it develops, she understands the difficult and complex issues of childhood depression and anxiety through experience she had mentoring a high school student through her trauma while Tate was studying in college.
As the rates of childhood depression and anxiety rise, the need for child mentors rises as well. Studies show mentoring does more than help a child into college, or encourage them to volunteer regularly; mentoring helps lower childhood depression and anxiety.
“[Research shows] when these programs are evidence based and when they focus on building relationships and trauma informed supports, they show really strong outcomes for children; socially, mentally and academically,” Tate said.
According to the Center for Disease Control (CDC) in 2018, mental disorders among children are described as “serious changes in the way children typically learn, behave or handle their emotions; causing distress and problems getting through the day.” In 2016, the National Mentoring Resource Center found that the evidence for mentoring program effectiveness is strongest for programs that have had a relatively high degree of structure. They also found through research that mentoring programs for youth with mental health challenges show the most evidence of having a positive effect on their mental health symptoms and academic outcomes. It was also found that both site-based mentoring programs in schools and community-based natural support teams show preliminary evidence of being helpful for youth with mental health challenges.
The CDC found that roughly seven-percent of children aged 3-17 have diagnosed anxiety, and another three-percent of children in the same age range have diagnosed depression. In addition, rates of childhood depression and anxiety have been slowly rising since 2003, as children between the ages of 6-17 increased from almost five and a half-percent to eight-percent in 2007, and rose again in 2012 to almost eight and a half-percent.
It has been found that rates of mental disorders change with age, as diagnoses of depression and anxiety are more common in older children and teens.
According to researchers in a study by the Child Mind Institute in 2010, brain changes in adolescence increase a teen’s vulnerability to depression and anxiety, as 11.7-percent of adolescents met criteria for major depressive disorder or dysthymia, a less severe but more persistent depressive disorder.
The study conducted by the Child Mind Institute also found that anxiety disorders are the most common mental health disorders of childhood and adolescence and that different kinds of anxiety affect young people at different times in development, and that girls are more frequently diagnosed than boys. For example, phobias and separation anxiety affect primarily young children while social anxiety develops later on in childhood into adolescence as peer relationships become more important.
Sweet has mentored elementary-aged students through the Dalton Linda Floyd Mentoring Program through Coastal Carolina University in South Carolina for going on three years. She meets with her third-grade mentee at her elementary school for about an hour a week during this school year.
During this time, Sweet has noticed a change in her mentee’s general attitude towards school and stated her unhappiness multiple times to Sweet. When asked, the mentee divulges a big change in her life; her parents are getting a divorce that has been affecting her happiness.
A feeling Sweet knows well, as when she was very young her parents split up.
“I have explained to her that I know what she’s going through, and even though it’s a hard time right now, everything will work out how it’s meant to,” Sweet said. “I also advised her to reach out to [her] guidance counselors.”
Since many mentorship programs meet for an hour a week, it is hard for mentors and mentees to develop a very strong bond. However, because the mentees are so young, it is difficult for them to really understand any real advice they are given. In Sweet’s experience, her mentee has taken some of her advice, but the rest is outside of her cognitive understanding, such as ways to view her parents’ divorce and her feelings about it.
“She’s young, so she didn’t really receive the advice, she just went about her day,” Sweet said. “But she said she would talk to a guidance counselor. […] I hope I have made a positive impact on her life.”
Due to the COVID-19 outbreak, schools across the country have closed for the remainder of the 2019-2020 academic year, which left these programs canceled as well, which made it impossible for mentors and mentees to continue to develop a strong relationship and help them through whatever situations they may face.
“Obviously, I cannot mentor her for the remainder of this school year,” Sweet said. “I hope to be able to mentor her again next year so I can continue to connect with her and help her through this time.”
With more female children and adolescents being diagnosed with mental health disorders at an increased rate than their male counterparts, as found by the study by the Child Mind Institute, mentor and advocate groups such as Strong Women Strong Girls provide a unique mentorship service to young girls. The Point Park University chapter specifically provides this service to a number of Pittsburgh Public Schools.
As someone with a diagnosed anxiety disorder, freshman elementary and special education major at Point Park, Foreman is able to connect better with mentees through their struggle with the same issues as she did growing up.
She was diagnosed with anxiety when she was 18 years old, helping her know she wasn’t alone in her feelings and fears such as constant paranoia and constant overthinking of obsessive thoughts.
“For a while, I thought I was the only one that thought of certain things, come up with concepts that are likely impossible to happen, have sleep paralysis, being paranoid all the time and overthinking constantly over and over again,” Foreman said.
Being able to connect with her feelings and understand them, she is able to bring that same comfort to her mentees, as she mentors through Point Park University’s chapter of Strong Women Strong Girls, such as providing advice for making friends and teaching the girls about strong women in history to provide them with positive role models and show them how they can grow into the strong women they emulate.
“[My fellow mentors and I] showed the girls that it is okay to be who you are, whoever you are; you are accepted, everyone has their strengths and weaknesses,” Foreman said.
Serena Daywalt, a junior psychology major at Point Park, currently serves as an advocate at Strong Women Strong Girls and served as a mentor earlier in her college career in this program. While being a mentor, she helped elementary-aged girls in the program handle issues with bullying that led to depressive feelings and behavior.
According to Daywalt, during the Spring 2019 semester, she mentored a girl who was often physically bullied by another student and told her about it in their weekly exercise “Roses and Thorns.”
“We do this [exercise] called ‘Roses and Thorns,’ [and] every week the girls would give you a high [point], a good thing that happened in their week and a bad thing,” Daywalt explained. “A lot of the time she would come in and [say] ‘I got into a fight with so-and-so,’ or ‘so-and-so beat me up.’”
In this situation, Daywalt was unsure of what she could do for her mentee, resulting in her speaking with the site facilitator to address the physical bullying between another student and her mentee. This resulted in the school’s administration stepping into the situation and forcing the bullying to stop.
Daywalt served as the whistleblower in this situation, and was unable to provide her mentee with advice or counseling on the issues that she was dealing with because the issue was beyond her skill-set as a mentor. However, if she was given the opportunity to handle this issue with the tools she has now, she believes things could have been different.
“[If I had to handle the issue], my problem solving every week would have been, ‘here’s how I can give her advice to work through this’, ‘here’s how I can help her not feel so bad about this’ or if she is upset, help her work through it and give her advice and encourage her to be who she is, even if other girls don’t like her,” Daywalt said.
Like the saying “every rose has its thorn,” at Strong Women Strong Girls, mentors teach their mentees that every day and every person they meet has positives and negatives and that they shouldn’t solely focus on the “thorns” of life.
A key finding from a Canadian study by the Center of Addiction and Mental Health in 2013 shows that boys in Big Brothers Big Sisters that have a Big Brother through the program are three times less likely than boys without a mentor to suffer from peer pressure related anxiety, such as worrying about what other children think or say about them.
From experiences that mentors at Strong Women Strong Girls have had, that finding is also accurate to girls who have a mentor.
“I’ve been at [some] sites where the girls are very self-conscious about themselves, and we are able to teach [them] lessons on confidence and show encouragement for each other,” Madalena Price, a senior secondary English and special education major at Point Park, said. “For example, we do complement plates, [where] we write our name on a plate and pass it to the right and write a compliment about the girl [whose name is on the plate] so we are able to teach confidence that [helps] take away the anxiety.”
Price has worn many hats at the Point Park chapter of Strong Women Strong Girls during her college involvement and is currently a mentor, site leader and executive board curriculum coordinator for the organization.
During the Fall 2019 semester, Price helped an elementary school-aged girl that was dealing with bullying, felt that she was hated by the other students, felt like she didn’t have friends and was dealing with depressive feelings brought on from the way she was treated by her peers. Through each mentoring session, Price could see her opening up more and more.
“At first, she would be the last one in the room [at] our mentoring space, but for the past few weeks she’s the first one there,” Price said. “She sits [in the] front row when in the past she would sit in the back. She wouldn’t really participate with us but now every week she comes in, she’s super happy, always has a smile on her face and she’s excited to be there, so we’ve definitely seen an improvement with her mentality and behavior.”
Like Price, Daywalt had seen a similar situation with her mentee that was suffering from physical bullying that included hitting and shoving. Over the span of the semester they were together, Spring 2019, Daywalt saw her mentee become more talkative and more open when it came to sharing her personal interests involving astronomy and space science.
“When I first met her she was sort of closed off, she wasn’t the happiest person around,” Daywalt said. “By the end of [the semester, Spring 2019], she was so happy, she was so outgoing. When I came back [last semester, Fall 2019], the first thing she and a couple of the other girls did was run up and hug me and tell me how much they missed me and how much they loved having me there.”
Strong bonds between people take time, especially when the relationship is between a mentor and their mentee. From Foreman’s experience, the kids are shy at first but as the weeks pass and they bond more, they really start to open up.
“I’ve noticed that they have started giving us some respect by starting to listen to us more and by being more open with roses and thorns,” Foreman said. “They want to do the activities because they are seeing what the club is all about and that is us girls sticking together and seeing the strong women out there and becoming the strong girls [they can be].”
As explained by freshman psychology major Maleah Keller, Point Park students that mentor through the University’s chapter of Strong Women Strong Girls are assigned to visit and mentor elementary school students through the Pittsburgh Public Schools. The schools have time set aside everyday of the work week for mentees and mentors to meet once a week. Based on the mentor’s schedule, they pick a day they are free and are assigned to a school. Usually, mentors are working with girls in third, fourth and/or fifth grade; with the occasional second grader or sixth or seventh-grader.
The mentors teach lessons about strong women, the many female role-models that the girls can idolize, look up to and be inspired by; how to interact with others, how to handle different issues and problems that they could face, building self-esteem and more based on a curriculum provided by the school and the organization.
“One week we taught the girls about popular female athletes,” Foreman said of the diverse topics they teach their mentees. “The next week we had a lesson on women in science.”
While studies show that treatment is up, there are more options than just traditional medication and therapy.
“Having those strong supports through a mentorship capacity can provide positive outcomes for children,” Psychology Professor Tate, Visiting Assistant Professor at Point Park University said. “With children who may be experiencing mental health issues or just general challenges, getting connected with someone who can provide and be a strong support network for them has been shown to have positive outcomes.” She stresses that the key point in these programs is that they are focused on providing lasting, supporting relationships.
Tate is well educated in the field of childhood development and psychology, as she earned her Bachelor of Science degree in Applied Developmental Psychology at Edinboro University of Pennsylvania before coming to Point Park to earn her Master of Arts degree in Clinical-Community Psychology and her Doctor of Philosophy in Community Engagement.
According to a study by the Canadian Institutes of Health Research, mentoring has been identified as “a structured and trusting relationship that brings young people together with caring individuals who offer guidance, support and encouragement aimed at developing the competence and character of the mentee.”
“In terms of meeting children where they are in whatever is happening for them, whether they are experiencing mental health challenges or just struggling with school or if they come from backgrounds where they are under-served or under-resourced; all of these components in addition to a positive mentorship component and structure, can help them build positive ways about going about life,” Tate said. “If they are an individual who is struggling with a mental health disorder like depression or anxiety, having a mentor who can help them get through those dark periods, having someone to go to knowing that they are going to be there and support them; all of that is shown to have positive outcomes immediately.”
Tate says she “can imagine that building that strong foundation with a mentorship program and with a mentorship component for a child can help them recognize where they are then and start to implement more positive behavioral changes over time.”
Childhood mental health issues are caused by numerous factors in the child’s lives. According to Tate, mental health issues can be genetically inherited or it can be a child’s response to their social environment.
“If you are a child in a home with a parent who is also dealing with mental health issues, having that sort of positive support can be challenging sometimes,” Tate said. “Incorporating a mentorship component can be an element of support for a child who may not find that within their home or their inter-personal social networks. […] Having that sort of peer mentoring and support has also [been] shown to be very effective.”
Something special that mentorship groups have been able to provide children with is a wide range of what mentorship can be and what it can look like.
“They are really operating from a full developmental scale,” Tate said, describing the benefits of Strong Women Strong Girls, Big Brothers Big Sisters and other groups like them. “What I appreciate most from Strong Women Strong Girls is that they have college-age mentors working with and supporting youth, but they also have college-age mentors who also have their own mentors who are professionals.”
During her time in college, Tate participated in the Big Brothers Big Sisters Mentor 2.0 program, where she mentored a student through their four years in high school helping them prepare for college, develop goals throughout and after high school and be there to support them when they are going through challenges.
“The student I was connected with, unbeknownst to anyone in the organization when they were creating the connection, had a significant trauma history,” Tate said. “Based on my background, researching trauma and all of that, I was able to support her on multiple levels. With her career goals, college goals but also with navigating this trauma and helping her get connected with the resources and supports here in Pittsburgh that could be relevant that she didn’t necessarily know about before.”
Luckily for Tate, she and her mentee developed a strong relationship and was the first person her mentee told about her trauma. Following that, Tate was able to support her mentee as she started to heal and understand what her trauma meant to her.
“I think that it was an added benefit of being able to see in real-time what that deeper relationship and connection with a mentee could look like,” Tate said.
The CDC provides a map showing the behavioral health service providers, state by state, county by county in 2015. For the state of Pennsylvania, they list data they obtained from pediatricians, family medicine physicians and psychiatrists from the American Medical Association Masterfile. All of the data is shown in a few maps and a list with all the information side-by-side.
In just about every category, Allegheny County is at the top of the charts when it comes to the amount of professionals to 10,000 children aged 0-17. The results come to having 9.6 psychiatrists and 28.8 psychologists.
Compared to neighboring counties, Allegheny County provides enough services and enough professionals to fill these roles and aid the children who need it most.
This story was last updated on April 14, 2020.