Canadian youth are facing a mental health crisis post-pandemic — here’s what you can do right now

Research shows that mentorship can have massive positive effects on youth mental health, but there’s not enough of it happening to help young people recover from the pandemic’s economic and social stresses

Why It Matters

According to MENTOR Canada’s 2020 national research, youth who had a formal mentor were three times more likely to report good self-rated mental health. Meanwhile, the pandemic has meant a huge increase in demand for mental health services among young people.

This story is in partnership with MENTOR Canada.

The mental health impacts of the pandemic are real — especially on youth.

Health care professionals, educators and youth-serving organizations are all reporting a massive increase in demand for youth mental health supports and programs.  In Budget 2021, the Federal Government recognized the high price youth have paid during COVID-19 and committed that no youth be left behind. Without a targeted and timely response, we risk leaving an entire generation behind.   

To ensure youth recover from the pandemic, the social impact sector needs to unleash the power of mentoring. While there’s been a need for mentors since long before the pandemic began, mentoring is an intentional response to the youth mental health crisis and should be a key component of our post-pandemic recovery plan. Young people will need a nation of willing adult mentors to support them as they navigate their educational journey, join the workforce, develop core skills, pursue their life goals, and foster community connectedness and well-being.

According to MENTOR Canada’s 2020 ground-breaking national research, youth who had a formal mentor were three times more likely to report good self-rated mental health.

Over the past year and half, we’ve connected with non-profit, government, corporate leaders and employers concerned about the mental health toll on youth and how to support mentoring. Here are four things every organization can do to support youth through mentoring: 

First, every organization has a role to play in attracting mentors. The good news from our research is that many Canadians might be willing to mentor if they were directly asked by a young person.

For organizations and their employees who may be reluctant to make a formal multi-month commitment to a mentoring program, episodic mentoring experiences can be a gateway to getting them hooked. These experiences help individuals to realize they have something to offer, something to give back, something to learn and put them in the driver’s seat.  And, it’s an easy way to demonstrate how a low-pressure ‘ask’ can sometimes be the most important first step in providing meaningful connections for youth

Over the course of the pandemic, MENTOR Canada has partnered with employers, including Deloitte, Starbucks, RBC and the Greater Toronto Airports Authority to connect more than 1500 young people to potential mentors. We’ve also worked closely with sector partners to connect us to youth, particularly those facing barriers.Through our 29 virtual Power of Mentoring events since February 2020, 847 youth between the ages of 18-30 have connected to 755 mentors.  And those numbers are growing weekly.

The results? Thousands of introductions and conversations that provide at least one more connection — on Linkedin and in real life. These Power of Mentoring Events have demonstrated a strong, effective way to engage the private sector and their employees in meaningful career mentoring conversations with youth across our country. Some of these connections and opportunities have directly resulted in youth being hired and new employment journeys being created.

Originally, these events were imagined as local in-person employment events, but the transition to online has proven to be a resounding success. By replicating the energy and enthusiasm from in-person to virtual experiences, we’ve been able to connect with even more youth from even more regions, including rural and remote communities across Canada. On two occasions, we also brought together youth across seven countries. As we bridged connections across the country, we’ve facilitated meaningful conversations and connections for young people to professionals whom they may never have connected with from other regions and provinces. During a period of intense physical and social isolation, Power of Mentoring has opened new possibilities and expanded human connections, a huge benefit to all youth but particularly those already facing barriers.

Power of Mentoring is a two-way street that yields real dividends. Corporate partners speak of how these events created opportunities for their employees to directly give back, feel a sense of purpose, and enjoy positive interactions with young people. This has been particularly meaningful for people and organizations that have struggled for meaningful, human connection and ways to contribute during the pandemic.  

Second, the social impact world needs to empower young people to take the first step in connecting with a mentor.  This will be particularly hard for youth struggling with confidence, and a lack of community connection brought on by pandemic isolation. Many youth are unaware of the power or mentoring in their own life, and they aren’t even sure how to ‘make the ask’ and connect to a new mentor. We need to develop a culture of mentoring in Canada where young people think about having a mentor, or multiple mentors as ubiquitous as they think about having a resume or cover letter.

Many youth employment initiatives in schools struggle to move past the “inform” point of the career pathways continuum — where young people learn about possible careers, but don’t receive much tactical support in actually finding a job. What’s been missing is the relationship that will open the door, make the introduction, broaden perspectives and empower young people to plot the next steps on their education and employment journey. Employers can fill this void by connecting with local youth employment initiatives, hosting mentoring events and encouraging employees to be open to connecting with young people for mentorship.

Youth need mentors who can help them build connections, increase their social capital, and enable them to cultivate and leverage the networks of support that are so critical to starting and advancing their careers. Some youth have shared anecdotes that they didn’t know mentoring was something they needed or was available to them. We need to make it as easy as possible for youth to approach and connect with mentors.    

Third, employers need to recognize mentoring as a gateway to work readiness. Events like Power of Mentoring are critical to helping youth build skills, expand their networks and clear pathways to employment. Over the past year of running this virtual programming, we have anecdotal evidence that the connections made during Power of Mentoring have been sustained, with some participants leveraging the events to support corporate recruitment goals. Post-COVID, there is an abundance of young people facing disconnection and barriers to employment in every community, and mentorship is a key part of the solution. 

Fourth, youth need to see themselves in their mentors. That means social impact organizations serving youth — or any organization looking to start a mentorship program — should recruit more diverse mentors and grow diverse mentoring programs. An example of this is our collaboration with Deloitte Canada and Indspire. Together, we have intentionally enhanced the Power of Mentoring to become more culturally relevant and meaningful, by honouring and respecting Indigenous culture and acknowledging the two-paths that Indigenous people live and walk. We have integrated cultural elements, language, and significance into the program design. Working with private sector partners and community organizations, we are facilitating critical connections, and understanding between mentors and youth from these communities.

What’s next?

More and more, the youth mentoring field is promoting the idea that one mentor is not enough.  We all need multiple mentors who can build a network of support for multiple challenges and stages of life. The more we can teach youth to ‘make the ask’ and build on meaningful relationships, the more successful and stronger they will be. While individual efforts will never dismantle systemic barriers, they play an important role in shifting mindsets, raising awareness and changing culture.

As a country, Canada needs to recognize mentoring as an intentional, powerful  and critical response to our post-pandemic recovery. This means more investment in programs, greater corporate participation, and more awareness building of the power of mentoring among young people and their families. Most importantly, we need to embed a mentoring mindset in all adults that we all need to create space in our companies, our lives, and our communities to amplify connection, hope, and opportunity for the next generation.