In a world where we are constantly bombarded with bad news, it is easy to forget the manner in which news is reported can impact and cause harm to vulnerable individuals. The topic of suicide is one such sensitive subject, and there are guidelines for the appropriate reporting of deaths by suicide to help mitigate potential risk. Despite these guidelines, sensationalized stories about death by suicide are often splashed across news sources in potentially harmful ways. This is especially common when the deceased is famous.
Naomi Judd, a country music icon, mother, and an individual who spoke openly about her struggles with mental illness, life ended just before Mother’s Day. The poised and sensitive way her family has handled passing this news along to her fans and the world has been an example of handling matters of death by suicide in a responsible and impactful manner. With the announcement of her death- the family stated their beloved mother died of mental illness.
Naomi Judd was involved in NAMI, the National Alliance on Mental Illness, during her life and illustrious career. She spoke openly about her mental illness despite the heavy stigma incurred in so openly addressing these matters. The approach she utilized in her advocacy surely influenced her family’s public response to her death.
Far too often, suicide is approached as a separate entity apart from the mental illnesses that predispose someone’s life to end by suicide. Often suicide is the culmination of chronic disease. Like other chronic illnesses, there is an end-stage of the disease process. Unfortunately, suicide can be the end stage of long battles with mental illness. These illnesses can be treatment-resistant, insidious, and very malignant. While suicide is an action, the final stages of depression are viewed very differently from other end-stage diseases. This continues the stigma that is associated with mental illness.
The family’s concentration on the illness rather than the end result provided a more measured explanation of the cause and circumstance surrounding the end of her life.
Ashley Judd later spoke on behalf of the family, discussing the method of suicide. These details were intentionally not released as a headline, per the guidelines regarding appropriate reporting of suicide-related deaths. An important way to sensitively discuss someone’s death by suicide is not concentrating on the method of death but shifting the focus back on the individual’s life.
Through their grief and heartache, the Judd family has honored their mother, an icon who happens to have suffered from depression. Their focus on her life and work and mindful method of speaking about her death is a very hopeful step forward in the continued fight to reduce stigma. Thank you, Judd family.
Courtney Markham-Abedi is a psychiatrist.
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