Van Gogh, Depression, and Suicide

According to Edwin Becker at the Vincent van Gogh museum in the Amsterdam, “Wheat Field With Crows” was painted in July, 1890. This was the same month in which van Gogh killed himself.  It is often thought to be van Gogh’s last painting. However, “Tree Roots” was actually his last painting. 

No matter, Becker states. “Wheat Field With Crows” can give us clues about van Gogh’s mindset those last days of his life. The wheat field is set under turbulent skies. The skies are intensely blue with fierce, thick brushstrokes contrasted with a yellow field. The eternal path leads to nowhere. Crows are flying everywhere as if they were disturbed by a gunshot–maybe the self inflicted shot of van Gogh.

The book, “Ever Yours: The Essential Letters” is a compilation of letters from the late van Gogh. Writing to a friend about the “Wheat Field With Crows” painting, van Gogh said he wanted to convey “extreme sadness, loneliness, and despair” in the painting. “The canvas says what I cannot express in words” said van Gogh. On July 27, 1890, van Gogh inflicted a gunshot to his own chest and he died two days later.

There are several tools to assess for suicide. One of which is the acronym, “IS PATH WARM”. When assessing suicide, we look for:

Ideation: Does the person think about suicide in relation to themselves?

Substance abuse: Does the person abuse drugs or alcohol?

Purposeless: Does the person feel they have a purpose in life or in their circumstance?

Anxiety: Are they nervous. Can they sleep or eat?

Trapped: Does the person feel that they can not escape?

Hopelessness: Has the person lost hope?

Withdrawn: Has the person pulled away? Do they stay alone for extended periods?

Anger: Does the person feel angrier than they have typically? Any rage?

Reckless behavior: Does the person tend to do things that are risky without thinking?

Mood changes: Has the person had recent mood changes?

Maybe van Gogh’s last painting, Tree Roots, speaks to his struggle. He wanted to marry his cousin. She said no. He was somewhat shunned by his family. He met a pregnant prostitute. He drew a nude of her called Sorrow. She ended up living with him.  His brother, Theo, asked him to leave the prostitute. In letter number 222, an early letter to his brother, van Gogh says that roots represent life’s struggle.

Psychologist Carl Jung said that loneliness does not come from having no one around you but from being unable to communicate the things that are important to you. Vincent van Gogh felt he could not express his feelings in words as well as he could in his painting. 

Much of communication is nonverbal. When working with others, their words are important. Even more important are their expressions. Ask, “What do you spend your time thinking about?” or  “How do you interpret your art?” People are more apt to tell you about a project they are working on and why they are working on it rather than telling you straightforward. May IS PATH WARM be a tool in your pocket today.

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