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MEGHAN MCCAIN: Naomi Judd’s suicide shines spotlight on skyrocketing number of deaths of despair

The news of Naomi Judd’s suicide literally stopped me in my tracks.

I paused and reread my news alert. The report seemed unfathomable.

I love The Judds, as the mother-daughter duo of Naomi and Wynonna were known.

I grew up in Phoenix in the ’90s, and it was almost impossible to live in that part of the country at the time and not adore them.

They were two of the most iconic country music singers of a generation.

Throughout their careers, they had 20 top 10 hits, including 15 number ones.

They won five Grammy Awards and Naomi won Country Song of the Year for writing ‘Love Can Build a Bridge’.

They’re ubiquitous in all things women in modern country music, and arguably as impactful as Loretta Lynne, Dolly Parton, and Miranda Lambert.

Naomi, in particular, transcended country music by hosting her own morning show on the Hallmark Channel and a revamped Star Search.

He wrote popular self-help books and achieved some notable achievements in acting.

But Naomi and the Judd family were and are iconic not only for their music and careers, but also for the way they allowed America to witness their struggles.

We saw everything from family complications and personal life dramas, to weight struggles and mental health issues.

Naomi was quintessentially American and a very important part of the fabric of southern and country music history.

The news of Naomi Judd's suicide literally stopped me in my tracks.  (Above) Naomi Judd performs at the CMA Music Festival in Nashville, Tennessee, on Saturday, June 13, 2009

The news of Naomi Judd’s suicide literally stopped me in my tracks. (Above) Naomi Judd performs at the CMA Music Festival in Nashville, Tennessee, on Saturday, June 13, 2009

Naomi was scheduled to be inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame with her daughter Wynona the day after she committed suicide, adding another deep note of tragedy to her death.  (Above) Wynonna Judd, second from right, stands by the Judds' induction plaque as sister Ashley Judd, left, Ricky Skaggs, and MC Kyle Young, CEO of the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum light on Sunday May 1.  , 2022, in Nashville, Tennessee.

Naomi was scheduled to be inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame with her daughter Wynona the day after she committed suicide, adding another deep note of tragedy to her death. (Above) Wynonna Judd, second from right, stands by the Judds’ induction plaque as sister Ashley Judd, left, Ricky Skaggs, and MC Kyle Young, CEO of the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum light on Sunday May 1. , 2022, in Nashville, Tennessee.

She almost literally rose to her own feet, working as a waitress and then a nurse, while trying to launch her music career.

She described herself as a “struggling, single working mom,” who got her break when she treated a patient who was also the daughter of an RCA Records executive.

All of this made the news of his suicide so jarring and sadly surprisingly relatable.

May is Mental Health Awareness Month, a time when millions of Americans will wear green ribbons to help destigmatize mental illness and support those living with and fighting the disease.

It is also a time to advocate for public policies that help people with mental health problems and their families.

This has been an extremely important topic for a long time, but it is perhaps even more critical now than ever.

Naomi’s daughter, famous actress Ashley Judd, sat down for a heartbreaking interview with Diane Sawyer this week.

For the first time, Ashley revealed that her mother died by shooting herself with a gun in her bedroom, while Ashley was downstairs letting a friend in through the back door.

It is truly every daughter’s worst nightmare.

The pain in Ashley’s voice and the anguish visible on her face is palpable, heartbreaking, and the interview is hard to beat.

Naomi was scheduled to be inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame with her daughter Wynona the day after she committed suicide, adding another deep note of tragedy to her death.

He couldn’t even celebrate his life achievements among his peers because he felt there was nothing left to live for.

I do not pretend to understand what it is that leads someone to feel that there is no way out of the pain they are experiencing. It is one of the greatest tragedies of the human condition.

But for some reason, there’s something especially tragic about seeing an American icon reach that depth of despair.

It focuses on the silent pain Naomi must have been experiencing despite being a beloved artist, with beautiful and successful daughters, a legion of adoring fans, and resources to help her battle her illness.

None of that was enough.

The Judds are ubiquitous in all things women in modern country music and arguably as impactful as Loretta Lynne, Dolly Parton and Miranda Lambert.  (Top) Dolly Parton (center) with Wynonna (left) and Naomi Judd (right)

The Judds are ubiquitous in all things women in modern country music and arguably as impactful as Loretta Lynne, Dolly Parton and Miranda Lambert. (Top) Dolly Parton (center) with Wynonna (left) and Naomi Judd (right)

And now in death, as she did in life, Naomi Judd has shed light on an American story.

Post-pandemic America is in a mental health crisis. It is a strange, uncomfortable and anxious place.

There was a common belief that as fears about COVID subsided and we entered a post-Trump presidency, we would find ourselves on the other side of the road, so to speak.

Instead, there is a persistent underlying feeling of fog and restlessness.

We are on the brink of a possible global war with Russia, inflation has made paychecks less valuable, and a trip to the grocery store or gas station is relatively more expensive than it has been in decades.

There’s a shortage of baby formula, and the collective reaction on Capitol Hill seems to be that it’s an emergency that can somehow wait, even though parents fear they won’t be able to feed their newborns.

There is not much optimism for the future, so it may not be a surprise that more than 16.1 million Americans suffer from major depression.

The Kaiser Family Foundation reports that Americans reporting depression and anxiety disorder symptoms skyrocketed from 11 percent in 2019 to 41 percent in 2021.

The nation is also experiencing a wave of substance abuse deaths.

Drug overdose deaths hit 100,000 for the first time in a single year last year in 2021, with much said to be attributed to the spread of fentanyl. But since 2000, a million Americans have died from drug overdoses.

These deaths of despair are overwhelming and need to be addressed.

I think this crisis demonstrates an even greater existential threat to our society than terrorism, a failing economy, or climate change combined.

Mental illness can be as serious as terminal cancer, and we need leadership in the public health space, the political space, and the cultural space that understands that reality.  (Top) Naomi Judd with her daughters Ashley (left) and Wynonna (right)

Mental illness can be as serious as terminal cancer, and we need leadership in the public health space, the political space, and the cultural space that understands that reality. (Top) Naomi Judd with her daughters Ashley (left) and Wynonna (right)

We have to start treating mental health with the same practical response that we brought to the Covid pandemic and other major health crises.

But for some reason we don’t.

There is still a lot of stigma, misunderstanding, and a general feeling that because mental illness doesn’t necessarily reveal itself on the surface, it is a different illness.

It’s a lie.

Mental illness can be as serious as terminal cancer, and we need leadership in the public health space, the political space, and the cultural space that understands that reality.

I want to express my condolences to the Judd family. I can’t understand your pain.

We can and must do better as a nation, so that we stop losing innocent victims to mental illness, the horrors of suicide, and deaths of despair.

If you or someone you know is struggling with suicidal thoughts or mental health issues, call the National Suicide Hotline, available 24 hours a day: 800-273-8255

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