Naomi Judd Was Open About Mental Illness, Thoughts of Suicide

The country music world and many beyond are in shock after the sudden and unexpected passing of country music icon and Hall of Famer Naomi Judd of The Judds on Saturday, April 30th at the age of 76. Though Naomi Judd had experienced health struggles throughout her life and career, including a diagnosis of Hepatitis C in 1991 that ended full-time touring of the duo, it’s the ominous statement from Naomi Judd’s two famous daughters—fellow Judds member Wynonna, and actress Ashley—that has many especially saddened and concerned about the situation.

“Today we sisters experienced a tragedy. We lost our beautiful mother to the disease of mental illness,” Wynonna and Ashley said in a joint statement. “We are shattered. We are navigating profound grief and know that as we loved her, she was loved by her public. We are in unknown territory.”

Though it’s easy to speculate about what this statement means, the truth is that we do not have any confirmation at this moment (at the time of this post) that Naomi Judd died of suicide. What we do know is that Naomi Judd struggled publicly with mental illness throughout her life. But instead of hiding it, she tried to use her experience with the disease to share her wisdom, and inspire others to work through their struggles, and spoke openly about suicide and how it is preventable.

In December of 2016, Naomi Judd published a memoir on her struggles with mental illness called River of Time: My Descent into Depression and How I Emerged with Hope.

In the book, she chronicled her battles with depression brought on by a childhood in a family with many secrets and haunted by the death of one of her young siblings while receiving little or no emotional support within the family structure. Later Naomi found herself reluctantly married and expecting her first child when she was just 17. Four years after, she was a single mom with two young children who had survived being beaten and raped, and ultimately abandoned without financial support. After attending nursing school, Naomi eventually decided to start The Judds with Wynonna, where she finally found stability, and eventually popular success through country music.

But this was in no way the end of Naomi Judd’s emotional problems. Though she battled through her Hepatitis C diagnosis to eventually become free of the disease five years later, after finishing a reunion tour with daughter Wynonna in 2011, Naomi Judd suffered the worst health crisis of her life. She was diagnosed with Severe Treatment Resistant Depression and anxiety, suffering through ineffective treatments and therapies including antidepressants and other drugs, ultimately resulting in thoughts of suicide when she felt like she had no other choice.

But Naomi Judd persevered, eventually penning River of Time: My Descent into Depression to hopefully help others find a way out of the severe depths of depression she found herself in.

As Naomi Judd explained about her illness, “I literally couldn’t leave the house for weeks. I was completely immobilized and every single second was like a day. It’s so beyond making sense but I thought, ‘Surely my family will know that I was in so much pain and I thought they would have wanted me to end that pain [through suicide].’”

In October of 2018 during Mental Heath Awareness Week and in the wake of Suicide Prevention Month, Naomi Judd, along with physician Daniel R. Weinberger, M.D., penned an open letter addressing the suicide epidemic, stating, “suicide is actually one of the leading causes of preventable death among these mental illnesses.”

The open letter said in part,

For everyone mourning the death of someone who committed suicide, an inevitable question arises: Why did this happen? Unfortunately, we don’t have very good answers. We do know that suicidal behavior accompanies many behavioral brain disorders such as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and depression. Suicide is actually one of the leading causes of preventable death among these mental illnesses. Addiction is another common brain disorder in people who commit suicide

Currently a disproportionate amount of research focuses on suicide as a sociological and psychological phenomenon, but the latest studies on aggression and impulsivity may give us better answers...

It is also clear from many studies that suicide runs in families and has some genetic roots. In fact, studies of twins show that 43 percent of the likelihood of committing suicide is determined by one’s genes. While it remains unclear which specific genes contribute to risk of suicidal behavior, family studies have consistently found that suicidal behavior is partially explained by transmission within families of impulsive and aggressive traits. And relatives of suicide completers have been found to have elevated levels of impulsive-aggressive traits and are themselves more likely to have histories of suicidal behavior.

To understand this issue better, we have to bring the study of suicide into mainstream neuroscience and treat the condition like every other brain disorder. People who commit suicide are experiencing problems with mood, impulse control and aggression, all of which involve discrete circuits in the brain that regulate these aspects of human experience, but we still don’t understand how these circuits go haywire in the brains of suicide victims.

Refocusing suicide research necessitates public and private collaborations. Right now about six times as many people in the United States die by taking their own lives as do from HIV/AIDS or heart disease, but the money to study suicide is lacking. In a recent column for the New York Times, Dr. Richard Friedman highlighted this funding disparity, noting that heart disease researchers receive 29 times the amount of federal funds than suicide and suicide prevention scientists. In fact, the federal government spent more money last year to study dietary supplements than to understand why Americans decide to take their own lives.

It’s about time we do better.

Compounding the concern and grief felt at the death of Naomi Judd is that she was scheduled to be formally inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in the institution’s annual Medallion Ceremony on Sunday, May 1st—the day after she passed. Though it’s comforting to many country fans to know that Naomi Judd was still alive to enjoy the honor of becoming a Country Music Hall of Famer, some wonder if the pressure of having to appear, perform, and speak might have been too much for her.

But the induction of The Judds into the Country Music Hall of Fame was the country music community coming together to honor Naomi and Wynonna for their contributions to popular American culture, including the duo’s perseverance through adversity, which is so integral to their story. This year’s Hall of Fame Medallion Ceremony is certain be a sullen one, but inducting The Judds was most certainly the right move by the Hall of Fame, and not too soon.

Naomi and daughter Wynonna also both recently performed their song “Love Can Build A Bridge” written by Naomi Judd, with Paul Overstreet and John Barlow Jarvis on the 2022 CMT Awards on April 11th. The song was one of the duo’s final hits in 1990. On the same day, the duo also announced they would be embarking on a 10-date “final tour” starting on September 30th.

That tour will now no longer happen, but country music fans can feel sated that before Naomi Judd passed, their debt of gratitude to her and The Judds had been paid through the Hall of Fame recognition. And through Naomi’s words and experiences with mental illness that she was so open and expressive about, hopefully others can find hope and perseverance through this most tragic illness in Naomi Judd’s memory.

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If you or someone you know is considering suicide, please contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255).

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