I visited the Van Gogh museum two weeks ago in Amsterdam. The collection is beautifully curated and one would find it to be an excellent place to learn about Van Gogh and his life. Except, the museum through poor interior design and inefficient crowd control manages to evoke a shopping mall-esque experience. The noise is unbearable and the crowd is packed at every nook and corner of the museum. People are leaning in close, examining the paintings as if they were counting the number of brush strokes, loudly chattering with their friends about plans while they’re in Amsterdam and the preciously few chairs are occupied by seriously dehydrated looking individuals who are napping. You weave in through the crowds, get your few seconds next to these works of art that meant something to you but in the moment you feel angry and frustrated and that confuses you. This after buying a ticket months in advance at a particular time slot and then paying more money for an audio guide hoping it would drown out some of the noise.
I left the museum wondering about how Van Gogh, the artist who loved to paint peasants and created “The Potato Eaters” as his first show piece would feel when he walked into this no-doubt profitable venture that is dedicated to his life’s work. I wonder what he would feel about the throng of artists who associate with his work as part of their artistic growth. I wonder what he thought about being recognized and hailed as a genius. I wonder what he thought about all the merchandise in the museum gift shop, printed with his work – mugs, umbrellas, stuff toys, scarves, ties, magnets neatly lined next to each other like bars of soap.
Van Gogh painted “Almond Blossom” when he received a letter from his brother Theo Van Gogh announcing the birth of Theo’s first child. The painting was a symbol for new life and was a gift for his brother and sister-in-law. The child was named Vincent for his uncle. Theo wrote in his letter, “I’m making the wish that he may be as determined and as courageous as you.” Theo was Van Gogh’s lifelong supporter. He not only sent him a regular allowance and art supplies but also believed in his potential as an artist. It’s not as if all was peachy between them. Van Gogh was famously difficult and it wasn’t easy to be around him. He was argumentative and their relationship suffered in the years that they lived together. Despite all their differences, their letters to each other are indicative of one thing: To Theo, Vincent was more than his problems. He saw in Vincent the determination and courage that we now see, years after his death, as visitors to the museum that celebrates him. There’s no denying Theo’s contribution to Vincent’s artistic legacy.
But love, even the deepest, purest and most unconditional love, is no match for mental illness.
You can’t wish away mental illness.
You can’t pray it away.
It does not go away because your family loves you deeply.
Ultimately, the world lost an artist before it could wake up to his genius. After battling years of mental illness and living in poverty, Van Gogh killed himself at age 37.
We love stories. We love how they neatly encapsulate the messy, complex, convoluted and sometimes bitter as hell truth. They help us make sense of the world and sleep better at night. Because the truth isn’t as convenient. And so, the story of Vincent Van Gogh, the tortured hero of the art world was born. It helps smoothen the rough edges and gives everything a nice, glossy coat of denial and delusion.
A whopping 137 years after Van Gogh’s death, the world continues to be unable to look at mental illness squarely in the eye. The illness hasn’t gone away, the number of ways to deny the pain have increased ten fold. The questionable narrative that mental illness spurs creativity has given birth to numerous studies. None of which seem to be able to make a conclusive connection. We’re desperate to find a way to put mental illness in a corner where we can give ourselves permission to ignore it but it refuses to be ignored.
Today, we name and treat every conceivable condition that ails man but the minute someone seeks counseling or therapy or medication or even mentions their mental illness they’re given a concentrated shot of denial juice. Of course, a media outlet will celebrate the celebrity that talks about their struggles with depression but those of us without a PR team are not so lucky. I’ve lost count of the number of times someone who barely knew me, swore with certainty that my ADHD diagnosis was complete nonsense. Sure, I’ve lived in my body for 30+ years, I’ve read the books and have been diagnosed by three practicing professionals with decades of experience but you must be right. Let’s drink to our denial! I can only imagine what people with conditions like depression, anxiety, PTSD, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia must deal with on a regular basis.
This video from AIB, an Indian comedy collective explains everything. You’d think this was just an Indian problem but sadly that is not the case.
Even if an individual has a supportive environment at home or a wonderful group of friends, the general system is set up to fail them. From finding good professionals who can help, getting medication that isn’t prohibitively expensive to getting insurers to pay up – It’s a constant battle. Disclosing mental illness at work is a big no-no so of course the solution is to suffer silently in a structure that does not work for you and won’t change either. Rates of youth depression and anxiety continue to rise at alarming rates but often, schools are poorly funded and ill equipped to provide for these students. To make matters worse, there’s a renewed obsession on superficial happiness lately that is taking us further away from honest discussions we desperately need to have on dealing with pain and negative emotions. This “smile through it all” culture is dangerous for our future.
Determinants of mental health and mental disorders include not only individual attributes such as the ability to manage one’s thoughts, emotions, behaviours and interactions with others, but also social, cultural, economic, political and environmental factors such as national policies, social protection, living standards, working conditions, and community social supports.
– WHO Mental Health Action Plan 2013-2020
Hearing about Linkin Park frontman Chester Bennington’s suicide made me think about how there’s an unsettling pattern in the way we look at the mentally ill. They’re either a burden to society who can’t be helped or the beautiful mind who can be exploited to turn a profit.
Both of these portrayals reek of apathy.
Mental illness isn’t only in the extremes. People from all walks of life are living with mental health disorders. In fact, one in five individuals in the United States are living with mental illness. They are in our companies, our schools, our communities, our families, and maybe even in our homes. We cannot wait for addiction, incarceration, poverty or suicide to claim more people for us to start a conversation. It has to start well before that.
It’s time to acknowledge the elephant in the room. Not doing so isn’t doing us any favors.