MEGHAN MCCAIN: The suicide of a quintessential American woman, Naomi Judd, shines a spotlight on a staggering American tragedy – the skyrocketing number of deaths of despair

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

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I paused and re-read my news alert. The report seemed unfathomable.

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

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

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

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

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

They are ubiquitous to all things related to 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.

She wrote popular self-help books and achieved some notable accomplishments in acting.

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

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

Naomi was quintessentially American and very much a 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, Tenn., Saturday, June 13, 2009

Naomi was slated 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 the right, stands next to the Judds' induction plaque as sister Ashley Judd, left, Ricky Skaggs, and MC Kyle Young, CEO of the Country Music Hall of Fame & Museum look on Sunday, May 1 , 2022, in Nashville, Tenn.

Naomi was slated 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 the right, stands next to the Judds’ induction plaque as sister Ashley Judd, left, Ricky Skaggs, and MC Kyle Young, CEO of the Country Music Hall of Fame & Museum look on Sunday, May 1 , 2022, in Nashville, Tenn.

She almost literally pulled herself up by her bootstraps, working as a waitress and then a nurse, while trying to launch her music career.

She was a self-described ‘single, struggling working mom,’ who got her break when she treated a patient who was also the daughter of an RCA Records executive.

All this made the news of her suicide is so jarring, and sadly, shockingly relatable.

The May is mental health awareness month, a time when millions of Americans will wear green ribbons to help destigmatize mental illness and to support those living and struggling with the disease.

It is also a time to advocate for public policies that assist those with mental health issues and their families.

This has long been an extremely important issue, but it maybe even more critical now than it has ever been before.

Naomi’s daughter, the famous actress Ashley Judd, sat for a heart-wrenching interview with Diane Sawyer this week.

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

It is truly every daughter’s worst nightmare.

The pain in Ashley’s voice and the visible anguish on her face is palpable, gut wrenching and the interview is hard to get through.

Naomi was slated 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.

She wasn’t even able to celebrate her life’s accomplishments among her peers because she felt there was nothing left to live for.

I don’t pretend to understand what brings someone to feeling that there is no way out from the pain they are experiencing. It is one of the greatest tragedies of the human condition.

But for whatever reason, there is something especially tragic about seeing an American icon reach that depth of despair.

It brings into focus the silent pain that Naomi must have been experiencing despite being a beloved entertainer, with beautiful, successful daughters, a legion of adoring fans and resources to help her combat her illness.

None of it was enough.

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

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

And now in death, she is did in life, Naomi Judd has shone a 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 over COVID waned and as 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 unease.

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

There is a baby formula shortage and Capitol Hill’s collective reaction seems to be that it is an emergency that somehow can wait, even though parents are in fear of not being able to feed their newborn babies.

There isn’t a lot of optimism for the future, so it may not be a surprise that over 16.1 million Americans suffer from major depression disorder.

The Kaiser Family Foundation reports that Americans reporting symptoms of depression and anxiety disorder shot up from 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, much of that said to be attributed to the spread of fentanyl. But since the year 2000, one million Americans have died from overdoses.

These deaths of despair are overwhelming and must be addressed.

I believe this crisis proves 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, political space and cultural space that understands that reality.  (Above) Naomi Judd with daughters Ashley (left) and Wynonna (right)

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

We have to start treating mental health with the same all hands on deck 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 an overall feeling that because mental illness doesn’t necessarily reveal itself on the surface, it is of a different breed of sickness.

It is a lie.

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

I want to express my condolences to the Judd family. I cannot fathom their pain.

We can and must do better as a nation, so 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 thoughts of suicide or mental health issues, please call the national suicide hotline, it is available 24 hours a day: 800-273-8255

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