Opinion: Death of Naomi Judd Must Serve as a Mental Health Wake Up Call

Wynonna and Naomi JuddNaomi (right) and Wynonna Judd in concert with the Band of the Air Force Reserve in 2008. Air Force photo

Naomi Judd recently became the latest high-profile individual to lose her battle with mental illness. Tragically, other prominent people, most notably three female college athletes from prestigious Division I programs, also fell victim to this disease.

While our collective awareness of the issues and causes of mental health improves, we must do more to save lives.

Several studies show the rise in mental health issues among individuals and families began before COVID, with possible reasons including the pervasive use of social media and other factors. The pandemic certainly added to this issue as people stayed away from their usual activities and interacted with friends and family less.

According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, approximately four in 10 US adults reported being anxious or depressed during the pandemic, increasing from a reported one in 10 adults between January and June 2019. Another study from the nonprofit institution discovered that many adults reported having difficulty sleeping or eating, a higher rate of alcohol consumption or substance abuse, and a rise in chronic conditions due to worry over COVID.

Additionally, we’ve seen studies that show a growing number of 9th- and 11th-grade student populations reporting depression-related feelings. Without question, the need for behavioral health services for both adults, teens, and children exists.

We would suggest that the time is now to get more serious about caring for people who have a mental illness before it manifests into a crisis for them. There’s greater acceptance of the idea that mental health illness is a medical condition and not a reflection of a person’s will or character.

This trend may partly explain the rise in reported cases. We hope it shows why we shouldn’t wait until we are experiencing a mental health challenge, illness, or emergency before we reach out for help. Awareness can start by knowing the most common signs and symptoms that negatively impact our current functioning level.

We must also address the equity in mental health care. When the COVID-19 pandemic started, it became clear that specific demographics, most notably rural, low-income, and racial minorities, found it more challenging to obtain such services.

These individuals also face challenges focusing on mental wellness without stable housing or food security. They will not be able to take time off work due to finances. They may not possess the social support required to seek care, and cultural stigmas may exist in their neighborhood about seeking therapy or psychiatric care.

To counter these obstacles, we as mental health providers must expand telehealth and other outreach services to reach patients who don’t possess reliable transportation, live in rural communities, or have different limiting factors. Doing so will create the ability to customize care based on the individual’s preference and connection for facilitating therapeutic progress.

Additionally, we must foster a system of care where a connection with others remains a priority. This approach should encompass education regarding mental health and the availability of alternative activities that promote both physical and psychological health, like a cooking class or a walking group. We would encourage an integrative care program that includes an annual mental health check-in and an annual physical exam to screen for mental health concerns and events that occurred in the past year that may have impacted daily functioning but have not been addressed.

Thankfully, we possess a far greater opportunity to make mental health a mainstream service. Let’s do so together, if for no other reason than to honor the memory of those who succumbed to this disease.

Gabriel Rodarte, MD, and Jennifer Woodworth, Psy.D, are the behavioral health medical director and psychological services supervisor for Neighborhood Healthcare, a nonprofit community healthcare organization that provides care in San Diego and Riverside Counties.

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