“No One Can Understand It Unless You’ve Been There” – Naomi Judd

In September 2017 I wrote a column for The North Star Monthly titled, “We Need to Talk.” It was about a 27-year-old man in our community who had suffered from depression and committed suicide. He had plans for a future and a family who loved and supported him.

In all the years I have been writing my column, the one in 2017 about suicide and depression really spoke to people. I never expected the response I received. People stopped me on the street and in restaurants to share their experiences about members of their families or friends who had committed suicide. In all instances, as they looked back, they wished there was something they could have done.

According to statistics from the Centers for Disease Control, 45,979 people died by suicide in 2020 with one death every 11 minutes. Adults who seriously thought about suicide numbered 12.2 million, those who made a plan for suicide was 3.2 million, and those who attempted suicide was 1.2 million.

Recently, the death of Naomi Judd resonated with me enough that I felt the urge to write another column about depression. Most of us knew Naomi as part of the mother/daughter country singing duo, the Judds. Naomi and her daughter, Wynonna, were going to be inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame on May 1, 2022. Naomi committed suicide the day before at the age of 76.

Naomi wrote a book in 2016 entitled River of Time: My Descent into Depression and How I Emerged With Hope. She wrote, “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.”

The American Psychiatric Association defines mental illness as “health conditions involving changes in emotion, thinking or behavior … associated with distress and/or problems functioning in social, work or family activities. Mental illness is nothing to be ashamed of. It is a medical problem, just like heart disease or diabetes.” Anyone can be affected by mental illness. Some cases can be treated with medicine and/or counseling. In other cases, a person may need hospitalization such as when it involves a major depressive disorder, bipolar disorder, or schizophrenia.

Unfortunately, there is a stigma about “mental illness.” Most people go through depression at some point in their lives. It may be triggered by any life experience, such as the loss of a loved one, a job, a divorce, or a health crisis, but with the help of loved ones and doctors, many survive the depression and go on to lead their lives.

Naomi had treatment-resistant depression that continued for years despite the help of doctors. In an article by Eileen Finan for People magazine dated Dec. 6, 2016, she wrote about how Naomi Judd “was in the grip of a deep depression and was suffering panic attacks despite heavy medication, multiple therapies, and two stays in psychiatric wards.” Naomi explained it this way. “Think of your very worst day of your whole life – someone passed away, you lost your job, you found out you were being betrayed, that your child had a rare disease – you can take all of those at once and put them together and that’s what depression feels like.”

The Judds had performed their Last Encore tour in 2012. After the tour, Naomi sunk into a deep depression. She couldn’t leave her house. As a former nurse, she read all types of literature to try and help herself. She sought medical help. The medication made her face swell and she lost her hair. Despite making some progress, she said, “Those thoughts of suicide don’t come anymore. But I’m vulnerable. I know I can backslide.”

The best description of depression I ever read came from the book Morning Has Broken by Emme and Phillip Aronson. It is the true story of Emme, a supermodel, and her husband, Phillip, her manager. He became ill one day and after many months, he could feel himself sinking into depression. Doctors were unable to help him. One day, he decided he couldn’t continue to live, took an overdose of pills, and hoped to die. His wife found him, an ambulance was called, and they were able to save his life. Phil writes in the book, “…the only way to get past the depression, to survive the depression, was to kill myself. That’s how bad it was. The thing of it is, I never really wanted to kill myself…it’s like I had no choice. It was the depression; it wasn’t me. The depression wanted to kill itself.” Later in the book, Emme writes, “He didn’t want to die, it’s clear to me now. He wanted to kill the pain of the depression.” With the help of many, he finally succeeded in beating his depression.

Whether someone has a broken arm or a broken spirit, everyone should be treated with the same consideration. Unfortunately, many people refuse to go to a doctor or counseling because they don’t want the stigma of others finding out about it.

If someone you know is considering suicide, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255), text VT to 741741, or call 911.

Life is a journey. We must find a way to help people fighting depression and suicidal thoughts.