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Bullying at university: how interpersonal violence affects students

The opinions expressed in this article are the writer’s own and do not reflect the views of Her Campus.
This article is written by a student writer from the Her Campus at Casper Libero chapter.

The discussion about bullying has taken place in society since the psychologist Dan Olweus created the term in the 70s to designate psychological, physical, or sexual violence between pairs. But this type of violence has always occurred. This discussion, however, is frequently about violence practiced in middle or high schools and not always how it happens in other spaces, like the academic field. 

Doctor Maria Paula Panuncio-Pinto, a researcher at the Medical College of Ribeirão Preto at the University of São Paulo, indicated that researchers in the area prefer to refer to this type of violence that happens in universities as interpersonal violence

“Bullying in universities, in the academic environment, is the same type of situation that happens in life outside of universities, because the university is a frame of society, so everything that happens in society as a whole also happens in the university”, says Dr. Maria Paula. 

Reflecting on acts of violence present in every situation, interpersonal outbreaks of violence can be based on gender, ethnicity, race, and sexual orientation, but it is difficult to determine what can lead to violence: “talking about motive is complex because we are talking about a human phenomenon that has always been present in interpersonal relations for different reasons”, explains the psychologist. 

When the violence starts

Research, led by Panúncio-Pinto, showed that professors and students frequently refer to the freshmen’s reception when talking about violence in universities, like obligating them to drink alcohol, giving them insulting nicknames, and other kinds of humiliation that can be physical — aggression, harassment, sexual abuse — or psychological.

These aggressions are normally related to power relationships that are socially built, like between freshmen and seniors, students and professors, and even men and women. According to the researcher, violence is practiced by those who have socially more power, and suffered by those who have less, possibly being related to racism, sexism, ageism, fatphobia, homophobia, and other types of prejudice and stereotypes. 

Some acts of violence are explicit like many already described here, but there are also microaggressions, minor comments, or acts that are made daily and can also bring severe consequences. Dr. Maria Paula relates that victims of interpersonal violence in universities can experience major health issues, like migraines, sleep and attention disorders, and depression, and can even lead to leaving the university or even the most extreme, but not rare, consequence: suicide. “The violence repetition can tell the victims that they don’t belong in that place, and they can end up losing a crucial thing: the sense of belonging”.

It’s not a shame to ask for help

The role of the universities is crucial in these cases, institutions are responsible for building a healthy environment for students and must be prepared to receive violent complaints, listen to the victims, and investigate these situations, creating permanent policies to prevent any kind of violence in the academic environment and having a fast response when it happens. “And classmates also have the role to notice [the violence]”, especially because it can be naturalized by a historical construction that sometimes not even the victim realizes. 

The criminalist attorney Bruna Gravois Melo clarifies that committing interpersonal violence against someone can lead to legal consequences in Brazil: “if the violence is, for example, verbal, moral bullying it can be configured as a crime of injury, defamation, and slander. If the aggression is physical, it can be bodily harm or even homicide. If it’s psychological violence, the crime could be persecution or threatening. The crime could be rape or sexual harassment when it is practiced as sexual intimidation”. 

She emphasizes that if you are going through any of these types of violence, the protocol would be to make a police report. If you relate to the situations described in this article, do not hesitate in seeking help.


The article above was edited by Clarissa Palácio.

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Giulia Peruzzo

Casper Libero '26

Psychologist and future journalist. An aquarius looking forward to make a better world through my stories some day.