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Governments should be investing in youth mentorship programs to help build an inclusive, supportive society

A version of this commentary appeared in Policy Options, the Huffington Post and the Vancouver Province


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 and the housing market appears unattainable for many with levels of inequity across society 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. For example, 45 percent of at risk youth with an adult mentor are enrolled in higher education compared with only 29 percent of their unmentored peers. Mentorships also reduce drug and alcohol abuse, engagement in violence and with the law and improves peer relationships, social skills and employment.

Unfortunately, too many young people in Canada don’t have an adult mentor.

Thirty percent of youth report never having 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.

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).

It turns out, mentorship programs work for low to high-risk youth.  Though, 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.

So 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?

One, 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 by teachers, in the juvenile justice and in child welfare/foster care systems. Matching them to the best mentor could dramatically improve the life chances for these youth. A mentorship match should be 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/or who struggle with math and reading.

This later 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 are all proud of.


Suzanne Tough is a professor in the Cumming School of Medicine, University of Calgary.

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

April 2017

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.