Suzanne Tough and Nicole Letourneau: Mentorship programs for youth see results

Suzanne Tough, Nicole Letourneau

Published Apr 06, 2017 on The Province

Long-time chef Scott Jaeger at the Pear Tree Restaurant with Michael Roszell, a young chef he is mentoring.

Youth 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 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 per cent of at-risk youth with an adult mentor are enrolled in higher education compared with only 29 per cent 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 Canadians don’t have an adult mentor.

Thirty per cent of youth report never having an adult mentor and rates are higher for youth most at risk, including those from impoverished backgrounds or those with an incarcerated parent.

Evidence shows that mentorships 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 costs and improving employment and, therefore, tax revenue.

It turns out, mentorship programs work for low- to high-risk youth. And mentorships are more successful when they extend beyond a year, long enough for emotional bonds and trust to develop. 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 succeed.

We must reach out to ensure that youth who need mentorship have men and women who are trained and ready to help. Youth often struggle to make sense of the complex issues in their lives and 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 to help shape an inclusive, civic society.

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.

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 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 and paired with the best mentors. Mentorship should be standard of care for these youth.

Third, as early as elementary school, children at risk of school failure should be identified and given mentors, including 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 3 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 daily through media channels, 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 and a professor in the Faculties of Nursing and Medicine.

The editorial pages editor is Gordon Clark, who can be reached at Letters to the editor can be sent to

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