Depressed classmates provide better help than young people who are not depressed

16 October 2018

Depressed classmates appear to be better helpers than young people who are not depressed. Furthermore, a depressed pupil who helps another pupil often starts to feel a bit more cheerful. These are findings from the doctoral research of Loes van Rijsewijk (University of Groningen). Van Rijsewijk did her research with a Research Talent grant from NWO and made use of the SNARE data collection funded by NWO.

Teenagers helping each other with homeworkPhoto: Voyagerix (Shutterstock)

When young people start at secondary school, they are faced with many social, biological and cognitive changes. Sociologist Loes van Rijsewijk (University of Groningen) asked circa one thousand young people from about fifty classes who helps them with their homework, repairing a bike puncture or when they feel a bit despondent at times.

Givers and receivers popular

Van Rijsewijk's research revealed that many young people help each other. Interestingly, both givers and receivers were more popular in the class. Van Rijsewijk: ‘So not only young people who give help but also those who receive it are socially accepted. That goes against prevailing theories.’

The blind helping the blind

In addition, depressed young people were better helpers than young people who were not depressed. Van Rijsewijk: ‘If depressed pupils help others then the helping relationship is more sustainable and maintained for a longer period of time. This is possibly because depressed young people are better at empathising with the problems of others and can, therefore, provide better help.’

According to Van Rijsewijk, providing help also reduces the pupil's symptoms of depression. ‘Perhaps depressed pupils who provide help learn from their own advice. Or perhaps they feel buoyed up if they discover that their classmates can also feel down.’

Skewed support network

Overview support networkResearchers asked pupils: ‘Who helps you with problems?’. In this class, pupil 9 stated that she receives help from four fellow pupils. Pupil 17 only receives help from pupil 13 and does not give help to anybody.

Like seeks like

Young people are selective when it comes to whom they ask to help them or whom they give help to. Most young people have two or three like-minded helpers. Girls, for example, more frequently asked for help from other girls and equally depressed young people seek help from fellow sufferers.

Lesson for teachers

Van Rijsewijk advises teachers to discuss the social network of each class with its pupils. For example, both teachers and pupils can see that pupil number 9 receives help from four pupils, whereas pupil 17 is isolated. According to Rijsewijk, the teacher should deliberately pair pupils: ‘The teacher could ask pupil 9 to help pupil 17. That would enable pupil 17 to become more involved in the network via pupil 9 and so more easily exchange help.’

More information

Loes van Rijsewijk (1990) carried out her doctoral research with a Research Talent grant from NWO. She initially wrote the grant proposal as an exercise for a module during her Master's research degree. Eventually, her proposal grew and she submitted it to NWO and received funding. Van Rijsewijk used and supplemented the SNARE data collection that is funded by NWO. She will defend her doctoral thesis on 18 October 2018 at the University of Groningen. Van Rijsewijk's doctoral thesis is entitled: 'Antecedents and consequences of helping among adolescents’. Her supervisor is René Veenstra, and the assistant supervisors are Jan Kornelis Dijkstra and Christian Steglich. Loes van Rijsewijk now works as a researcher at the Research, Information and Statistics Department of Groningen City Council.

Source: NWO


Science area

Social Sciences and Humanities


Research Talent


Curiosity driven research and talent (2015-2018)