Content warning: eating disorders

Author Jacqueline Wilson’s books are well-known for tackling difficult subjects, are Girls Under Pressure is certainly no different.

It’s written from the perspective of Ellie, a teenage girl who is struggling deeply with the way she looks. She compares herself to her two best friends, Magda and Nadine, who Ellie thinks are much prettier (and more importantly much thinner) than her. These feelings lead Ellie to start an extreme diet, which includes avoiding most of her meals and occasionally forcing herself to be sick.

Ellie also encounters Zoe, another girl from her school who is suffering with an eating disorder. Zoe is severely anorexic, leading to her eventually being hospitalised because she has lost a dangerous amount of weight.

Eating disorders, such as those affecting Ellie and Zoe, are not as uncommon as we might like to think. It is estimated that 1.6 million people in the UK suffer from this kind of illness, which often develops during a person’s teenage years. However, it is important to note that help is available for people struggling with an eating disorder, and that the right to this help is protected by law.

Right to Health and Health Services

A child or young person’s right to health is well-recognised in international law.

The International Covenant on Economic, Cultural and Social Rights (ICECSR)  sets out the right to health, which includes an obligation on governments to promote a health system so that everyone has access to medical assistance should they need it. Article 24 of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) states that every child has a right to ‘the best possible health’ and the government should support this through providing good-quality health care.

Although many of us think of ‘health’ as relating mainly to our physical wellbeing, the right to health also extends to the protection of mental wellbeing. It is recognised by the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights clearly that ‘there is no health without mental health’, and that ‘good mental health means much more than the absence of a mental impairment’.

This means that, should you find yourself suffering from an eating disorder, you have a legal right to be able to access help in having it treated. Zoe receives this help through ultimately being treated in hospital, however this is an extreme situation. In practice, this would equally include forms of treatment such as access to a GP to discuss your situation and specialist therapy or counselling if needed.

Right to Treatment in Detention and Review of Care

The ICECSR also encompasses the right to be treated with dignity whilst in detention. This means that, if a person is detained for treatment so they can be treated for an eating disorder (or other mental health condition), they have a right to be treated respectfully.

In addition, Article 25 of the UNCRC sets out the right to a review of treatment in care. If a child has been placed away from home for care or protection, they have a right to have their treatment regularly reviewed, as well as they way they are cared for and their wider circumstances. So if a person is taken into hospital for treatment, they have a right to have this reviewed for their own benefit and protection.

Your Rights

As you can see, serious consideration is given to the legal rights of children, even if they are suffering from an eating disorder or other mental health issue, so do not hesitate to seek help for you or a loved one if you think it’s needed.

And if you are curious to know more about the characters from the book, or seek reassurance that most young people suffer from insecurities, I would very much recommend the Girls series by Jacqueline Wilson!

About the Author

Rhiannon Smith is a Legal Advisor and recent graduate of Swansea University Hilary Rodham Clinton School of Law. She has a strong interest in children’s rights and human rights law more generally, and is hoping to pursue a career in this area.