The graduate student who wants us to talk about eating disorders
James Downs is exceptionally talented — both academically and musically. He’s also a perfectionist who has struggled with OCD and anorexia. It was more than six years before he found treatments that suited him. He now campaigns for better mental health services for young people.
It’s extremely difficult to capture how we each experience emotions — and we’re all different. But looking back I’d describe myself as a highly sensitive child. When I saw people suffering on the television news, I’d feel overwhelmingly sad. Why did the world have to be so cruel — and what should we be doing about it?
I’ve always had a problem with choices — worrying about doing the right thing. This has translated into a stop-start journey through higher education as I switched from music to medicine and from medicine to psychology. I’ve now found what I want to do which is to combine psychology with education — and to look at how young people transition into adulthood and beyond.
We need to rethink what counts as success within the education system. Children need to learn emotional resilience so that they can cope with life. I’m doing a Master’s course in education and psychology, and I hope to use my thesis as an opportunity to develop yoga as a mindfulness-based intervention for people experiencing eating disorders. I want to look at more embodied ways of practising meditation.
Secondary school was a negative experience for me. I was bullied for standing out and I was under-stimulated academically. I developed OCD and a fixation with my appearance. My problems with eating started when I was about 16. Over time, anorexia and bulimia proved themselves very powerful — if damaging — ways of controlling or numbing my overwhelming feelings of shame, anxiety and anger.
Neither my teachers nor my parents realised I was skiving off school. I spent the day wandering around lanes and parks. My body dysmorphia was so extreme that I was convinced I was too ugly to be seen, or that people would crash their cars if they saw me. The school failed to understand how I couldn’t just walk into classrooms. The teachers thought I was simply arrogant.
Food is one of the basic necessities for life. But there’s a shameful lack of research into eating disorders, even though they have the highest mortality rate of all mental health problems. I’ve seen friends die. Yet you hear the terms “attention seeking” and “manipulative” used repeatedly — sometimes even by GPs who are the first point of contact for patients in distress.
Men get eating disorders too. I’m a trustee of a charity focusing on overcoming the additional barriers to treatment experienced by men and boys. In my case, doctors struggled to see past my gender to the distressed human underneath. They assumed I had an additional condition — Asperger’s or an unresolved question about my sexuality. I remember a doctor saying “You’re a bloke — surely you don’t want to look like that?”
I’m co-chair of the Eating Disorders Clinical Network for the East of England. We organise training days and produce videos to help health professionals support sufferers and carers. I’m determined to use my experience and skills to speak out to ensure others don’t have to go through the same as I did. I often present at conferences and have spoken on national television and in parliament. I write for the Huffington Post on a range of issues relating to mental health
Music is a big part of my life. The violin gave me another voice to express myself. Over my teen years, being able to play my emotions out — either on my own or in ensembles such as the National Youth String Orchestra — was something I relied on. I wasn’t especially keen to practice the nitty-gritty parts, but often excelled in competitions and took principal positions in orchestras.
At the age of 18, I got a place to study music at Cambridge. I thought my problems were over. Cambridge had been my goal all through sixth form and I’d tried to push my anorexia and OCD aside. I never took up my place. I came to the admissions interview with severe anorexia, and this simply didn’t get better fast enough to be ready to start the course.
That was ten years ago. The time since has been so disjointed and difficult. Without addressing my health first, it would always remain this way. Despite being unwell, I never gave up trying. I worked in a nursing home in Cardiff, where I’m from. I loved the job and decided I wanted to work with people. I applied to study medicine at Bristol and got a place on a course geared to students without science A-levels.
Again, my eating disorder took hold. I had to drop out of the course. I reapplied to Cambridge to take a degree in psychology and got a place. Once again, I had to drop out because the cost to my health was so great. Eventually I got a degree with the Open University. I feel proud that I managed that.
I’m now back in Cambridge and doing a Master’s at Wolfson College. The programme can be completed over one or two years, and I am taking the slower route. I’ve realised that health and balance is everything — I’ve got to make it my priority to be well. If I need more time than most other people, that’s something I can accept.
I’ve been helped by dialectically behaviour therapy (DBT). It was six years before I was offered any specialist eating disorders treatment. DBT is a mindfulness-based therapy that gives you healthy skills to substitute for damaging behaviours. At Cambridge, I have a mentor from the Disability Resource Centre and meet her every fortnight.
Yoga can be immensely beneficial, if you don’t push it to extremes. Last year I trained to become a yoga teacher and I give classes in Cambridge. By aiming to combine teaching and research, I hope to find out which elements of yoga practice have the potential to help people with eating problems and body image issues.
For eight years, I rarely picked up my violin. When I came back to Cambridge I auditioned for the university orchestras and surprised myself by getting a place in the chamber orchestra. I was principal violin of the larger symphony orchestra on their summer tour to Cologne, playing Rachmaninov’s second symphony. Playing the violin became a metaphor for reclaiming everything I thought I’d lost.
I now know how to manage my feelings. My advice to anyone else with a mental health problem is to be open about it. I realise it’s not easy, and that the right help isn’t always readily available. But Cambridge, and Wolfson in particular, have been wonderfully supportive and have done everything they can to help me make positive decisions.
Cambridge students are high achievers. They push themselves — sometimes too far. Recently I gave a talk to the association of Cambridge college nurses. I wasn’t surprised to hear their concerns about students with eating disorders — and how tricky it is to encourage young people to recognise they have a problem and need help.
My goal is to work in mental health, eventually as a psychotherapist. But I’m not ready to work as a therapist yet. I need to develop my academic and research skills — and plan to take a clinical psychology or counselling psychology doctorate. I would be cautious about working solely in eating disorders though — it’s very close to home.
This profile is part of our This Cambridge Life series.