Eating Difficulties and the Law: A new book chapter co-authored by a Law School academic and an alumnus

by Judy Laing & Rachel Jenkins

Over the last 20-30 years, the prevalence of eating difficulties has increased to become a widespread experience across the UK and worldwide. Worryingly, levels have risen significantly since the COVID pandemic began in 2020, particularly in children and young people.  The Parliamentary Health and Social Care Committee recently examined children and young person’s mental health in England and commented that:

‘Throughout our inquiry, stakeholders have raised concern about the sharp rise in the number of children and young people suffering from eating disorders, particularly among teenage girls….. during 2020/21 the NHS saw an 83% increase in demand for urgent eating disorder services and a 41% increase for routine services…… When we questioned Rt Hon. Nadine Dorries MP, then Minister of State for Patient Safety, Suicide Prevention and Mental Health, about this she acknowledged that eating disorders had been “our biggest issue recently” and this had come “to a crisis point during lockdown”’ (paras.  21 & 23).

The Committee urged the government to take ‘radical steps to shift the focus in mental health provision towards early intervention and prevention…. [to] ensure that all children and young people under the age of 25 can receive mental health support as early as possible and no young person is turned away from mental health support for not being ill enough’  (para. 35).

Research published in the Journal of Eating Disorders has shown how important it is to address the potential for negative impacts of messages around food and exercise, and to work directly with service users to facilitate effective treatment. Pavilion Publishing has recently published a book which aims to provide a wide and informed introduction to this area, by drawing on personal and professional experiences to suggest strategies and practical support for people with eating difficulties. The Practical Handbook of Eating Difficulties: A comprehensive guide from personal and professional perspectives (Pavilion Publishing 2021) brings together varied perspectives of people with lived experience of eating difficulties, their families, clinicians and therapists, as well as leading researchers in the field.

The handbook covers the important topics of understanding eating difficulties in our society’s context, including the role of social media and the fashion industry, and how healthcare professionals, voluntary organisations and relatives can support those experiencing an eating difficulty.  One of the chapters in the handbook has been co-authored by health law researchers based in the Centre for Health, Law & Society at the University of Bristol Law School. Rachel Jenkins, a University of Bristol law alumnus and Judy Laing, Professor of Mental Health Law & Policy at the University of Bristol, have contributed a chapter to the book on ‘Eating Difficulties and the Law’. Their chapter focuses on the legal regulation of treatment for persons with eating difficulties – both children and adults.  It is a challenging area, as there are overlapping legal frameworks as well as some distressing cases on compulsory treatment, which raise some complex legal and ethical dilemmas.

Rachel co-authored the chapter with Judy as she has a deep passion and longstanding interest in the subject area.  Rachel studied on the LLB at the University of Bristol for three years before returning in 2020 as a postgraduate student on the popular LLM in Health, Law & Society programme. Many of the graduates on this LLM programme have gone on to work in a range of exciting health related and research roles, including NHS management, policy, advocacy and academia.  And Rachel is no exception – she continues to flourish as a fully funded PhD research student at the University of Durham, where she is exploring the legal challenges around the treatment of eating disorders in greater depth.

Rachel enjoyed studying medical law as an undergraduate at the University of Bristol and opted to complete a final year research project on a subject she was really passionate about – anorexia and the law. She extended this research on her LLM dissertation to develop her ideas about how the law should respond to eating disorders and regulate treatment in a more patient centred way. This detailed knowledge and deep interest was invaluable when Rachel co-authored the chapter with Judy last year. They worked together closely on the material to ensure that it is up to date and clearly written, as they sought to break down a complex legal area into a more accessible and user-friendly format. They very much hope that the handbook will go some way towards opening up much needed discussions and debates at a crucial time on this difficult and distressing subject.

Debates about mental health and capacity law reform are currently raging as the government published proposals in 2021 to reform mental health law in England and Wales, and is also amending mental capacity law relating to deprivation of liberty in the Mental Capacity Amendment Act 2019. This year’s Centre for Health, Law, and Society (CHLS) annual symposium on Wednesday 9th March 2022 from 2-5pm will be addressing some of the most challenging questions around mental health and capacity law reform. The symposium will be looking at wide ranging questions, practical areas, methods of understanding and analysis, and methods of reform; of law and of practice. In keeping with the traditions of CHLS, the symposium brings academic rigour and diversity as well as practically-oriented, socially-grounded perspectives. The CHLS is delighted to host online speakers across a range of disciplinary perspectives and from the four corners of the UK to discuss and debate the future direction of domestic mental health and capacity law reform.

Further details of this online symposium are available here and a link to register via Eventbrite can be found here.

Judy Laing is Professor of Mental Health Law and Policy at the University of Bristol Law School. She has a longstanding interest in the legal regulation of mental health care and treatment and has published extensively on aspects of mental health law and human rights.  She is currently undertaking a Parliamentary Academic Fellowship in the House of Commons Library, where she assists with responding to enquiries from Members of Parliament and their staff, as well as producing research briefings on aspects of mental health law and policy.

Rachel Jenkins is PhD student at Durham University researching the interface between Healthcare Law and Anorexia Nervosa with funding from the Economic and Social Research Council. She studied her LLB and LLM in Health Law and Society at the University of Bristol Law School.

“Studying the LLM at Bristol has been the highlight of my University Career. Every unit provided a different insight into the ways in which law and policy interacts with health, both upstream and downstream. This masters was particularly unique in that I was able to pursue my own research interests through modules such as Law, Governance and Health, and Health Law and the Body. Not only was this mentally stimulating and critical to my PhD journey, but it also helped to better me as an individual through the care and support of faculty members such as Professor Laing.”


Further support:

The UK’s eating disorders charity BEAT provides support and advice via their helpline and online resources about eating disorders.

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