Vincent Van Gogh’s Comorbid Disorders

By: Danna Beltran



This is one of the many self-portraits Vincent van Gogh painted of himself, this one specifically in 1889.

A new report on the mental problems suffered by Vincent Van Gogh and his likely diagnosis was published on November 3, by the International Journal of Bipolar Disorder. As it is known, Van Gogh, a Dutch Post-Impressionists painter, tried to commit suicide, at the age of 37, causing his death two days later on July 29, 1890. Through this study, it was discovered that several of the previously suggested diagnoses were deemed as highly unlikely, while others were classified as more likely for him to have suffered


What is new about this report is that their goal was not to assign one single illness, but instead attempting, “To assess all mental symptoms ever reported by Van Gogh in his letters or as found in other sources.” They used several diagnostic approaches for the study, although they had to keep in mind that they were doing a diagnostic without the patient present to be interviewed or examined. They accessed and examined 902 letters of which 820 were written by him to his brother Theo, as well as other family members.


   The research concluded that Van Gogh most likely suffered from comorbid illnesses. Which is when medical conditions are simultaneously present in one patient. The journal discovered that from young adulthood, “He likely developed a (probably bipolar) mood disorder in combination with (traits of) a borderline personality disorder as underlying vulnerability.” This condition is thought to have worsened through his use of alcohol and malnutrition. In addition, his rising physiological tensions ultimately led him to cut off his ear in December 1888. As a result, the journal stated that, “He likely developed two deliriums probably related to alcohol withdrawal, followed by a worsening with severe depressive episodes…” From this episode, he did not fully recover which then led him finally to his suicide. 


Van Gogh through all the odds of his conditions was able to, as described by the journal, have “enormous willpower, resilience, and perseverance.” He was still willing to, “Over the years keep on painting, also during most difficult periods in his life. Only during the most severe psychotic episodes did he temporarily stop working, but in intervals with less symptoms he was able to paint.” His passion for expressing himself through his art never, even in his worst, died. He truly was a representation that mental illnesses don’t mean people  aren’t “normal,” but just that they have a different way of viewing the world. Van Gogh chose to share this through art.