Peer pressure is a major contributor to Nigeria’s mental health crisis

The notion of peer pressure being bad for business is not new to anyone raised by Nigerian parents. In every ethnic language in Nigeria there is a phrase to admonish against ‘bad friends’ or ‘bad influence.’ Yet, the irony remains that often parents do this under the influence of pressure rather than pure altruistic concern. And in that is sometimes the lesson they try and fail to teach us with their admonishment.

There are positive effects that peer pressure could have on a person. Like make you push your child to excel so she can stand shoulder to shoulder with her peer among your friends’ children, for instance. Or make you work extra hard to afford a better place in another neighborhood because it is better for your kids in the long run even if you don’t know it yet.

Nigerian parents are however not wrong about one thing – that peer pressure packs more negative effects for younger people than positive effects, even if their methods are not altogether ideal.

That is not to say that the effect of peer pressure on adults is any less concerning. The far-reaching negative impact of peer pressure on the mental and physical wellbeing of a person don’t go away with age, what often happens is that the adult is better prepared with coping tools to navigate it than teenagers are. Sadly, most times that isn’t the case.

Ezeani Chinaza, a Nigerian entertainer whose Instagram skit went viral in 2019 and her success steadily grew with it, vocalized in a series of Instagram posts the frustration of positive peer pressure many Nigerian adults don’t have the language to even describe.

Chinaza, whose over 100, 000 Instagram following is largely there for her skits, had lately been pressuring her to put out more of the content that they signed up for.

It is a story of positive peer pressure millions of Nigerian adults know personally but one that few stop to pull apart to see how harmful it is to their mental wellbeing.

Whether it is, “Get that masters,” “Get married now, the sooner the better,” or “Get that second child now, your first child will thank you for it,”  we have all heard some iteration of ‘advice’ from our friends that leaves us rolling in bed assessing our life choices for nicks that confirm their concerns.

34 year old Kano-based finance professional, Suleiman Faisal, put it most relatably when he said, “I would not be doing what I do right now if not for the fear of being unable to keep up with my friends.”

Chinaza’s post laid out the reasons for her inability to keep up with her followers whose threats of unfollowing her page is dangled every time in her comments section ; a whip to drive the horse on its course that does more harm than good to her creativity per her post.

Some of the negative effects of peer pressure include drug abuse, alcohol consumption, depression, anxiety, insomnia, eating disorders et cetera.

Anxiety disorder is one of the most common mental illnesses globally and a very common trigger remains the very human comparison with peers that leaves people feeling like under-achieving posers.

Chinaza is not alone in this struggle.

Ife* (24, F) feels the same emotional weight when self-comparison corners her.

“It is basically the same feeling we had instilled in us by our parents growing up – the feeling that you are not enough unless you can keep up with your peers. The only difference is that it is now enforced by the very same peers our parents once dangled in front of our eyes to remind us of what we are failing to achieve.

“I have kept my distance from people a lot lately because I don’t want to grapple with the feeling of underachievemet I feel when I am around them most times.”

Ife’s solution to self-comparison may seem practical because at the end of the day there is hardly anything you can control beyond how you come to any situation, whether that is career trajectory or sexual attraction. It is however not advisable because loneliness can increase the amount of cortisol (known as the stress hormone) in your body. This can affect your immune system and raise your risk for a range of health concerns, including, diabetes, sleep issues, cancer, heart problems and obesity.

Prolonged loneliness can affect mental health also. It can make any symptoms you’re already dealing with worse, for one. It can also factor into the development of serious mental health conditions, including depression.

Rasheeda (36, F) knows this from personal experience.

“My go-to solution in University was to self-isolate when I feel despondency coming on. I used to miss classes just so I can stay away from forced interactions with friends and coursemates. You can imagine how that ended.

“Coming across my triggers became increasingly easier. Access to people I can unload to became harder. The slide into clinical depression was very easy from there.”

Finding a healthy balance with peer pressure is hard. In fact, many swear it is impossible because the human propensity to look around and compare the present with what could be is not easy to do away with.

Chima (31, M) believes it is impossible to arrive at a balance with peer pressure.

“It is either work to catch up or simply remove yourself from the competition. You can’t win by failing or an uncaring attitude. I tried and failed once.

“I think it is harder for men because in any setting we are expected to suck it up. The best you can do, from my experience, is to flow with the situation. That means you are never in control of your reaction to the situations.”

That however is exactly the problem; people being unable to control their reactions to a situation and being forced to conform to a social expectation of how they should react.

Bibi (24, F) embodies this and swears by it. Chinaza agrees in her post when she wrote;

“I will eventually post the content that appeals to you but please, don’t pressure me,” she said in response to her followers’ requests for content.

Bibi’s way may be easier because she doesn’t have a throng of fans waiting for her to deliver for them.

Yet, celebrity or not, we have an innate desire to protect the self. For Chinaza, that may mean deciding when to create and share, for someone like you and I, it may mean simply knowing when to engage altogether. Knowing the difference is vital.

*Names have been changed to maintain anonimity.

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