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The Passion of Vincent Van Gogh: How Mental Illness Transformed His Work
Psychiatrist Dr. Gail Saltz discusses the artistic qualities that make Vincent van Gogh legendary, and how his unusual personality, affected by a certain mental disorder, affected his work.
Dr. Gail Saltz is a bestselling author of numerous books and the go-to expert on a variety of important psychological issues. She is Chair of the 92nd Street Y "7 Days of Genius Advisory Committee" and Consultant and Event Moderator for the Clinton Foundation's Health Matters Initiative. Dr. Saltz is an Associate Professor of Psychiatry at the NY Presbyterian Hospital Weill-Cornell School of medicine, a psychoanalyst with the New York Psychoanalytic Institute, and has a private practice in Manhattan.
Gail Saltz: So most people are familiar with the idea that Vincent Van Gogh had mental illness. Different camps so to speak of mental illness almost like to claim Van Gogh as their own. So groups say, you know, oh he had schizophrenia. He had bipolar disorder. I would argue that Van Gogh who clearly had documented certain symptoms which ranged from being high irritable and at the same time what’s called very sticky. Stickiness is a psychiatric term which means you bond to people and sort of cling on and keep engaging with them in a very, very intense way. But when someone is both sticky and irritable it causes what happened to Van Gogh which is he would make these intense relationships with his brother for example, with Gaugin. So certain artists and with women that wouldn’t necessarily be suitable women for him. And at the same time he would then have these tremendous arguments and fights with them. So they were chaotic relationships and they were I’m very close, no I can’t have anything to do with you that really reeked terrible havoc in his life. In addition to those two symptoms he also suffered with extreme depression at various times, real mood lability. So sometimes he was intensely depressed. Other times he was seemingly more up.
And those go together along with something very interesting which is his paintings. So in his paintings we see intense color and a difference in terms of paintings that proceeded it which were more realistic. His paintings have this more abstract quality almost in some ways like a nightmarish quality to them. And that makes you think about again what was going on in his mind that he produced something like that. If you look at all of those qualities you think about temporal lobe epilepsy. Temporal lobe epilepsy is not like other forms of epilepsy where you have a seizure happen that you can see because it’s happening in the temporal lobe which is an emotional center of the brain. So that symptoms of temporal lobe epilepsy are this mood lability, stickiness, irritability, irascibility and so being a frustrating person and visual hallucinations. So seeing visually in your own mind intensities of color, heightened sensory visual stimuli like this essentially Starry Night or, you know, something that looked very dramatic, impressionistic. Or even visual hallucinations that alter what someone else looks like. So people who have temporal lobe epilepsy might look at your face and see distortions.
And of course when we look at some of Van Gogh’s paintings you often do see such distortions. The interesting thing is that ultimately when he was hospitalized in Remy the doctor actually thought he did have epilepsy and treated him for epilepsy. So there was even knowledge at that time that there could be this kind of illness causing his problems. And in fact this all fits with the time periods during which he becomes most ill which is when he would drink absinth. Absinth was an alcohol that was very in during various periods of Van Gogh’s life and it has a very high pure alcohol content which lowers the seizure threshold in the brain. So people who have epilepsy have to stay away from alcohol and are usually medicated with something that lower the seizure threshold of the brain. If one would drink absinth and have temporal lobe epilepsy you would expect a real rise in the amount of activity going on and more illness to the point even of being psychotic which did ultimately happen to Van Gogh in the incident where he had this big blow up with another artist and hurt his ear, you know, cut off a piece of his ear and so on. So these things, these pieces all essentially fit together to create this picture that is a likely diagnosis. Again one can never 100 percent retrospectively diagnose someone but these would all fit with temporal lobe epilepsy and they would also explain what might have informed some of Van Gogh’s work. And no doubt he is a brilliant, was a brilliant artist but some of his work may have been informed actually by his illness and that is what we see today.
Psychiatrist Dr. Gail Saltz discusses the artistic qualities that make Vincent van Gogh legendary, and how his unusual personality, affected by a certain mental disorder, affected his work. We know, for example, that Van Gogh was both highly disagreeable and "sticky," meaning he had a deep need for friendship despite his quarrelsome nature. His relationships with his brother and fellow painter Paul Gauguin, not to mention his various liaisons with women he wasn't suited for, take us a stop closer to understanding how Van Gogh's mental state affected his artistic output.
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Gender and sexual minority populations are experiencing rising anxiety and depression rates during the pandemic.
- Anxiety and depression rates are spiking in the LGBTQ+ community, and especially in individuals who hadn't struggled with those issues in the past.
- Overall, depression increased by an average PHQ-9 score of 1.21 and anxiety increased by an average GAD-7 score of 3.11.
- The researchers recommended that health care providers check in with LGBTQ+ patients about stress and screen for mood and anxiety disorders—even among those with no prior history of anxiety or depression.
Study findings<p>For the study, <a href="https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s11606-020-05970-4" target="_blank">published in the Journal of General Internal Medicine</a><em>, </em>Flentje and her team evaluated survey responses from nearly 2,300 individuals who identified as being in the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ+) community. Most of the participants were white, while nearly 19 percent identified as a racial or ethnic minority. Multiple genders were represented with cisgender women (27.2 percent) and men (24.6 percent) making up a majority of the participants. Sixty-three percent had been assigned female at birth. For the most part, participants identified their sexual orientations as queer (40.3 percent), gay (36.5 percent), and bisexual (30.3 percent).</p><p>The JGIM study participants were recruited from the 18,000-participant <a href="https://pridestudy.org/" target="_blank">PRIDE Study</a> (Population Research in Identity and Disparities for Equality), which is the first large-scale, long-term national study focusing on American adults who identify as LGBTQ+. It conducts annual questionnaires to understand factors related to health and disease in this population. </p><p>Participants filled out an annual questionnaire (starting in June 2019) and a COVID-19 impact survey this past spring. Flentje noted that on an individual level, some people may not have experienced a big change in anxiety or depression levels, but for others there was. Overall, depression increased by a <a href="https://patient.info/doctor/patient-health-questionnaire-phq-9" target="_blank">PHQ-9 score</a> of 1.21, putting it at 8.31 on average. Anxiety went up by a <a href="https://www.mdcalc.com/gad-7-general-anxiety-disorder-7" target="_blank">GAD-7</a> score of 3.11 to an average of 8.89. Interestingly, the average PHQ-9 scores for those who screened positive for depression at the first 2019 survey decreased by 1.08. Those who screened negative for depression saw their PHQ-9 scores increase by 2.17 on average. As for anxiety, researchers detected no GAD-7 change among the study participants who screened positive for anxiety in the first survey, but did see an overall increase of 3.93 among those who had initially been evaluated as negative for the disorder. </p>
Risks among gender and sexual minorities<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="fc3fd1ae68b77bbbf58a6995638d6d65"><iframe type="lazy-iframe" data-runner-src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/EnUqDjCqg0A?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span><p>The LGBTQ+ community is a vulnerable population to mental health concerns because of their fear of stigmatization and previous discriminatory experiences.</p> <p>Previous research by the Human Rights Campaign has found "that LGBTQ Americans are more likely than the <a href="https://medicalxpress.com/tags/general+population/" target="_blank">general population</a> to live in poverty and lack access to adequate medical care, paid <a href="https://medicalxpress.com/tags/medical+leave/" target="_blank">medical leave</a>, and basic necessities during the pandemic," said researcher Tari Hanneman, director of the health and aging program at the campaign.</p> <p>"Therefore, it is not surprising to see this increase in anxiety and depression among this population," Hanneman said in the release. "This study highlights the need for <a href="https://medicalxpress.com/tags/health+care+professionals/" target="_blank">health care professionals</a> to support, affirm and provide <a href="https://medicalxpress.com/tags/critical+care/" target="_blank">critical care</a> for the LGBTQ community to manage and maintain their mental health, as well as their physical health, during this pandemic."</p>
What should health care providers do?<p>The authors of the study recommend that health care providers check in with LGBTQ+ patients about stress and screen for mood and anxiety disorders in members of that community—even among those with no prior history of anxiety or depression.</p><p>As cases of COVID-19 continue to mount, the sustained social distancing, potential isolation, economic precariousness, and personal illness, grief, and loss are bound to have increased and varied impacts on mental health. Effective treatments may include individual therapy and medications as well as more large-scale coronavirus support programs like peer-led groups and mindfulness practices. </p><p>"It will be important to find out what happens over time and to identify who is most at risk, so we can be sure to roll out public health interventions to support the mental health of our communities in the best and most effective ways," said Flentje.</p>
What we know about black holes is both fascinating and scary.
- When it comes to black holes, science simultaneously knows so much and so little, which is why they are so fascinating. Focusing on what we do know, this group of astronomers, educators, and physicists share some of the most incredible facts about the powerful and mysterious objects.
- A black hole is so massive that light (and anything else it swallows) can't escape, says Bill Nye. You can't see a black hole, theoretical physicists Michio Kaku and Christophe Galfard explain, because it is too dark. What you can see, however, is the distortion of light around it caused by its extreme gravity.
- Explaining one unsettling concept from astrophysics called spaghettification, astronomer Michelle Thaller says that "If you got close to a black hole there would be tides over your body that small that would rip you apart into basically a strand of spaghetti that would fall down the black hole."
The team caught a glimpse of a process that takes 18,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 years.
- In Italy, a team of scientists is using a highly sophisticated detector to hunt for dark matter.
- The team observed an ultra-rare particle interaction that reveals the half-life of a xenon-124 atom to be 18 sextillion years.
- The half-life of a process is how long it takes for half of the radioactive nuclei present in a sample to decay.
A new study looks at what would happen to human language on a long journey to other star systems.
- A new study proposes that language could change dramatically on long space voyages.
- Spacefaring people might lose the ability to understand the people of Earth.
- This scenario is of particular concern for potential "generation ships".