Global Health Awareness Week: Celebrating mental illnesses and other contemporary studies through artist Van Gogh

Artists, musicians and poets who die young from mental illnesses are ubiquitous. An important one to note is artist Vincent Van Gogh.

Van Gogh was born 153 years ago on March 30,1853. After ten years as an active artist, he died in 1890 at the tender age of 37.

Nonetheless his contributions subsist today, stirring many platforms of creativity including fashion, technology, science and popular culture.

There is an apparent fixation among authors to unearth more of his mystic life. The large number of biographies depicting the artist’s life is a testament to his popularity among historians and other academics.

Released last October, the book Van Gogh: The Life runs at approximately 1,000 pages. It is a marathon of a book written by Pulitzer Prize-winning authors and Harvard law-school alumni Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith. Published in 2010, it is the most recent biography of the artist up to date. In particular, it “diligently examines the development of his ideas, his techniques, his startling ability to inhale lessons from other painters and transform their innovations into his own.” (As described in Michiko Kakutani’s New York Times’ review.) An example of this has emerged in the world of fashion.

Globally acclaimed high-fashion brand Rodarte has taken heed of Van Gogh’s characteristic design patterns. Last fall, the brand introduced a line inspired by paintings like Still Life: Vase with Twelve Sunflowers and Starry Night; bringing to the runway a Vincent Van Gogh Inspired Collection.

In addition to the aforementioned authors who penned Van Gogh: The Life and designer Rodarte, other professionals have displayed interest and commitment in studying Van Gogh, particularly in the field of psychiatry and psychology. Many wish to infer their own conclusions based on signs and symptoms they detect in Van Gogh’s autobiographical archives.

Housed in the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, numerous letters and artwork help health professionals deduce accurate conclusions about Van Gogh—specifically his mind’s biology and consequent mental illness.

After decades of study, researchers relate the artist’s behavior, personality traits and volatile ways to the bi-polar mental illness. (Bi-polar, occasionally referred to as manic-depressive disorder, causes mood swings that alternate between manic and depressive behavior.)

Since Van Gogh committed suicide, the number of doctors who have attempted to dissect his psyche is mind-boggling. More than 150 physicians have reviewed and discussed the perplexing diagnoses of Van Gogh’s illness, according to the American Psychiatric Association in 2003—one can only assume the numbers have risen since then.

The plethora of recent biographies proves the artist continues to gain notoriety, especially since most things written about Van Gogh reflect his genius and flawed character, and investigates whether any dots between his insanity and virtuoso connect. The heightened intrigue that propels on-going studies has undoubtedly contributed to the rise of public awareness on the subject.

Clinical psychologist and author Kay Redfield of Touched with Fire: Manic-Depressive Illness and the Artistic Temperament clarifies the artist’s manic state, a polar extreme of manic-depressive disorder:

“Many of the changes in mood, thinking and perception that characterize the mildly manic states – restlessness, ebullience, expansiveness, irritability, grandiosity, quickened and more finely tuned senses, intensity of emotional experiences, diversity of thought, and rapidity of associational processes – are highly characteristic of creative thought as well.” (105)

As the book reveals a coherent connection between bi-polar disorder and Van Gogh’s  creative-genetic makeup, one can infer that the artist’s sickness drove him to insanity, serving as the dominant fuel for his creativity. Other departed bi-polar individuals followed similar emotional blueprints and too, contained high capacities for talent.

(The opening statements of the Fall 2004 Setting New Standards in Mental Health Edition, From Napoleon to Kurt Cobain: Cultural Legends with Bipolar Disorder) reads:

“From poetry to politics, religion to science, some of the world’s most famous artists, leaders, and innovators have had bipolar disorder, also known as manic-depressive illness.”

The study then compares Vincent van Gogh to writers F. Scott Fitzgerald, Nirvana-band rock star Kurt Cobain, leaders Abraham Lincoln and Winston Churchill, and Academy-Award winning actress Vivien Leigh, who played the “emotionally troubled” Scarlett O’Hara in Gone with the Wind, to name a few.

“As these examples show, many people with bipolar disorder and related mood disorders exhibit exceptional discipline and can harness their illness to accomplish legendary feats.” “Individuals with manic-depression and other mental disorders surround us, coming from all walks of life and sometimes among them are those who play the most celebrated roles in shaping our society.”

Author Joshua Wolf Shenk says in his book Lincoln’s Melancholy: How Depression Challenged a President and Fueled His Greatness that those with a mental illness “are very much in touch with the pain of life and if they are able to tolerate their experience, they can become examples to other people of how to live in the face of pain with dignity, and how to search for meaning—which ultimately is what everyone is searching for: a meaningful life.”

The Lincoln biography draws similar characteristics to Van Gogh’s mental disease, idiosyncrasies and nervous dispositions.

In addition to the aforementioned individuals who have researched and analyzed the bi-polar disorder, fictional characters have also captured the world’s attention both on the television screen and silver screen; movies and television shows convey the scientific truth to the masses: those that suffer with psychological disorders may still have the ability to possess an imagination of their own.

Main character Carrie in Showtime’s hit show Homeland struggles with both her CIA identity and unparalleled mastermind. Constantly unsure whether her intuitions and consequent actions straddle between genius and psychotic, Carrie leaves the audience ambivalent whether it is her nature or her nurture she questions— am I reading the bad guy’s mind, or am I simply raving mad, seconds away from losing my job? Completely aware of her bi-polar disorder, she uses it to her advantage as she manically works to solve the international manhunt mystery throughout season one.

For a lighter crowd, the adolescent show 90210 airs on the CW and introduces teenagers to Silver, a flawed NYU-bound artiste with lots of punch, vigor and thick enough skin to tolerate the pain and trauma resulting from her bi-polar illness. Conversely goodnatured on the interior, she faces her demons from her childhood. Although she moves to the beat of her own drum, her subconscious disrupts her go-lucky flow sporadically. Similar to most bi-polar individuals who are coping with the effects of parental abandonment, Silver resists her alcoholic mother’s neglect; she leaves home and seeks refuge at a local shelter, where she is eventually kicked to the curb and replaced by others with higher degrees of need. She then settles for sleeping in cars—until her older sister and friends step in.

Switching gears to the real deal, well-renowned actress Catherine Zeta-Jones spoke outwardly about her bi-polar mental disorder last March, and shortly after, 19-year-old musician Demi Lovato followed Zeta-Jones’ footsteps.

Lovato went to rehab in 2010 to receive treatment for bipolar, which consequently led to an eating disorder as well—a common side effect for those who suffer with the illness.

“I was a very manipulative person when it came to my eating disorder,” Demi says in an interview with Bliss Magazine. “You name it, I did it.”

In conclusion, it is fair to say that Van Gogh and others have played a significant role in killing today’s stigma of the bi-polar mental illness. Van Gogh’s legacy continues to live on, as others have followed suit in educating the masses about mental health.

Thank you Van Gogh; your work is priceless, a value of untold sums. May your essence continue to inspire us all and continue to galvanize worldwide awareness to mental health.

Happy Global Awareness Week to all!

USC is currently celebrating Global Health Awareness week— events center around the issue of malnutrition and the solutions and options for healthier nutrition.

Visit USC’s Global Health Awareness Week 2012 Facebook Page for a schedule of this week’s events on both the Health Science Campus Center and University Park Campus.

More information and a schedule of events for USC’s Global Health Awareness Week can be found at

This year’s Global Health Awareness Week started on Monday, April 2 and runs until Saturday, April 7, concluding with a finale honoring World Health Day LA.


1 reply
  1. Harold A Maio
    Harold A Maio says:

    I do not appreicate an editor allowing a “stimga.”

    A pledge for you:

    You may not direct a “stigma” against any member of my family, any employee
    of my paper, any acquaintance or fellow through my paper.

    You may not use my newspaper (journal, radio station, TV station, website,
    my individual self) as a resource for promoting a “stigma.”

    I will not accept a paid advertisement promoting a “stigma,” nor an article.
    Proactively, editors, one can take a stand against promoting a prejudice, a stand against those who do so, willfully, maliciously or naively. Or as empty habit.

    Harold A. Maio, retired mental health editor

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