New vision on the mental problems of Vincent van Gogh; results from a bottom-up approach using (semi-)structured diagnostic interviews

Willem A. Nolen*, Erwin van Meekeren, Piet Voskuil, Willem van Tilburg

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleAcademicpeer-review

Abstract

Background: On July 29, 1890 at the age of 37 years, the Dutch painter Vincent van Gogh died from the consequences of a suicide attempt with a gun 2 days earlier. Since then many medical and psychological theories were suggested about what had happened to Van Gogh. Aim: To present an overview of the history of the mental problems of Van Gogh and the most likely diagnoses. Method: (Semi-)structured diagnostic interviews were applied to three art historians who are very familiar with Van Gogh from his correspondence and other sources as well as a neuropsychiatric examination to evaluate whether the symptoms might be explained by a medical condition. Results: Several previously suggested diagnoses could be excluded as being highly unlikely, while other diagnoses could be classified as more of less likely. Conclusion: Most likely Van Gogh suffered from comorbid illnesses. Since young adulthood, he likely developed a (probably bipolar) mood disorder in combination with (traits of) a borderline personality disorder as underlying vulnerability. This likely worsened through an alcohol use disorder combined with malnutrition, which then led, in combination with rising psychosocial tensions, to a crisis in which he cut off his ear. Thereafter, he likely developed two deliriums probably related to alcohol withdrawal, followed by a worsening with severe depressive episodes (of which at least one with psychotic features) from which he did not fully recover, finally leading to his suicide. As additional comorbidity, focal (temporal lobe) epilepsy cannot be excluded.

Original languageEnglish
Article number30
JournalInternational Journal of Bipolar Disorders
Volume8
Issue number1
DOIs
Publication statusPublished - 1 Dec 2020

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