Students who mentor disadvantaged young people frequently suffer demoralisation, loss of confidence and feelings of personal failure as a result, research shows.
Mentoring is promoted in many of the Labour government's social and educational policies and is usually presented as a solution to a wide range of social ills, according to Helen Colley, a senior research fellow in Leeds University's department of lifelong learning.
But Dr Colley's study of the impact on both the disadvantaged youngsters and their mentors shows that things can go seriously wrong as mentors quickly get out of their depth.
"Mentoring is an idea with a strong feelgood factor, linked to images of the mentor as a saintly person who is self-sacrificing and all-powerful," Dr Colley said. "There's a tendency for policy-makers, practitioners and academics to talk only about the happy stories. My research showed that it has become taboo to discuss the dark side."
The two-year study focused on a training scheme to help socially excluded young people into employment, using undergraduate volunteers from an unnamed university to act as mentors.
Dr Colley found that while the "trainees" generally saw the mentoring experience as positive - some even described it as life transforming - this contrasted sharply with the mentors' experience.
One mentor, Yvonne, was finding mentoring Lisa so difficult she decided not to put her involvement on her CV for fear of being asked about the outcome.
"What is a mentor?" she said, "Sometimes I think I'm just a verbal punchbag. And that's what I'm there for. She can come in and say, 'The whole world's ****e and I don't want to do it', and just get it off her chestI She's still basically drifting, and we're still doing that circular thing. The purpose of mentoring still baffles me.
"I don't want to be the one who says, 'You're doing my head in, you're not getting anywhere, go away.' I think in some ways I'm scared of bringing it up in case she thinks I'm pushing her away," she added.
A second mentor said: "It's very sad, because you don't know what to do for the best. I get very angryI I get frustrated, then I feel guilty for getting frustratedI she can't help the way she is, and I can't help her either. I just don't feel I'm helping her at all."
Another student was encouraged by her university to join a mentoring programme. "I can't remember half the promises they made. I just sit here and think, 'Why did I do this?' I put it on my CV, and then I dread anybody asking me about it in an interview. I really dread it, because I think, well, what do I say?"
Most of the mentors in the study found the experience a negative one and said they wouldn't put it on their CVs, Dr Colley said.
"Students found it very hard to cope with the emotional burden and were not equipped to deal with the kinds of problems their mentees presented, especially when often they had their own stresses to deal with," she said.
Difficulties often stemmed from unrealistic expectations of mentoring schemes whose success is measured solely on getting young people into work.
Dr Colley said: "Current policies assume employment is the only solution to social exclusion, which isn't always the case. We need to support mentoring that genuinely focuses on softer outcomes than simply becoming work-ready - though these are less attractive to policy-makers because they can't be easily measured or translated into employment statistics.
"If employability is the main measure of success, mentors will feel they've failed if this hasn't been achieved."
Mentoring for Social Inclusion: A Critical Approach to Nurturing Mentor Relationships was published by RoutledgeFalmer www.routledgefalmer.com