The youth of any society constitute the promise of the future — and many of our youth are in trouble. They are growing up in a divided society, with ethnic, gender and political tensions at seemingly combustible proportions — not just south of the border, but in Canada too. Their employment opportunities are frequently temporary, unstable and short-term; housing they can afford appears unattainable for many; and levels of inequality across society are increasing.

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 Canadian at-risk youth forge a positive path forward: provide positive mentorship.

Research shows that mentorship programs for youth improve school success and academic performance. According to The Mentoring Effect, a 2014 report by the National Mentoring Partnership in the US, 45 percent of at-risk youth with an adult mentor are enrolled in higher education, compared with 29 percent of their unmentored peers. Mentorships also cut drug and alcohol abuse, reduce 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 percent of youth in the 2014 report say they never had an adult mentor of any kind, and rates are higher for youth most at risk, including those from impoverished backgrounds or those with an incarcerated parent.

Evidence shows that mentorship programs for youth make good economic sense too. The Mentoring Effect found that 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).

It turns out that mentorship programs work for low to high-risk youth. But duration matters: mentorship is more successful when it extends beyond a year, long enough for emotional bonds and trust to develop. And training is important. Training programs for mentors, such as those led by Big Brothers Big Sisters and the Boys & Girls Clubs, ensure mentors learn the skills they need to experience success.

We must reach out to ensure 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 issues in their lives and playing out in their communities, such as gender and gender identity, immigration or refugee resettlement, racism and sexism.

Mentorship can foster shared understanding and respect and can help bridge gaps between contemporary values and traditional customs and habits. Mentors are the role models and teachers that we need to help shape an inclusive and civic society.

But it’s a sad reality that almost 80 percent 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. So, what can be done?

First, we need to normalize, popularize and celebrate mentorship. Communities, schools, not-for-profit organizations and the private/corporate sector can embed mentorship programs in strategic planning, evaluation and investment planning. The private/corporate sector can recognize employee contributions to mentorship the same way participation in other corporate philanthropy is celebrated.

Second, at-risk youth can be identified in schools, in the juvenile justice system and in child welfare and foster care systems. Matching them to the best mentor could dramatically improve their life chances. Making a mentorship match should be a standard of care for these youth.

Third, as early as elementary school, children at risk of school failure should be identified and provided with quality mentorship. These include those with poor attendance and children who struggle with math and reading.

This point was perfectly articulated by an impoverished young pregnant woman in one of our studies, who was suffering from a serious addiction. She said, “You would have had to ‘get me’ in grade three to prevent me from ending up where I am now.” Her words have haunted us for over a decade. She had spent her childhood and youth doing the best she could to survive in her environment — and we failed her.

At a time when fear of the “other” is broadcast through media channels on a daily basis, the potential for an inclusive and compassionate society is threatened. Mentorship and engagement with those around us is a vehicle for building a diverse and peaceful society we can all be proud of.


Do you have something to say about the article you just read? Be part of the Policy Options discussion, and send in your own submission. Here is a link on how to do it. | Souhaitez-vous réagir à cet article ? Joignez-vous aux débats d’Options politiques et soumettez-nous votre texte en suivant ces directives.

Nicole Letourneau
Nicole Letourneau is an expert advisor with and a professor in the Faculties of Nursing and Medicine at the University of Calgary. She also holds the Alberta Children’s Hospital Foundation Chair in Parent-Infant Mental Health at the university.
Suzanne Tough
Suzanne Tough is a professor in the Cumming School of Medicine, University of Calgary.

You are welcome to republish this Policy Options article online or in print periodicals, under a Creative Commons/No Derivatives licence.

Creative Commons License