When country music star Naomi Judd died on Saturday at 76, her daughters Wynonna and Ashley Judd said in a statement that they had lost their mother "to the disease of mental illness.” No further details about the cause of death were disclosed.
The wording of the family's statement was heavily scrutinized on social media. Many fans felt the phrasing rang true, given Naomi's openness about her struggles with depression and suicidal ideation. Others criticized the statement as frustratingly vague.
Mental health experts say while these reactions may be driven by curiosity and even good intentions, how a family speaks about the death of a loved one is a personal decision, and the Judd family should be spared critique.
"They are a family grieving the loss of their mother and they don't have an obligation to anybody to say anything," said April Foreman, a member of the American Association of Suicidology. "Some people may believe that it was likely that they're referencing suicide and wish or want for the family to say things in a certain way, but it's inappropriate for us to demand that. We can't insist they carry the banner for all of us in their darkest moment. How you talk about the deaths that impact you is up to you. And how the Judd family talks about their mother's death is up to them."
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What the family statement on Naomi Judd's death did say
Dr. Julie Goldstein-Grumet, vice president of the non-profit Education Development Center and director of the Zero Suicide Institute, said the Judd's phrasing isn't typical, but in Naomi's case, it feels accurate.
"This has been a life with significant highs and successes, but also with significant trauma and mental illness issues that she's been very public about," Goldstein-Grumet said. "In many ways, it does sound as though mental illness was the disease that led to her death."
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Naomi, a longtime ambassador for the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), spoke about being a survivor of childhood sexual abuse, of living with severe depression, spending time in psychiatric hospitals and struggling with suicidal ideation.
Most people who live with a mental illness do not go on to die by suicide, and most people who experience suicidal thoughts do not make an attempt. But Goldstein-Grumet said Wynonna and Ashley's statement contributes to important dialogues about both.
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While some critics of the statement questioned its vagueness, Goldstein-Grumet said it may be serving a more productive purpose.
"What the family is doing is pulling the dialogue back to her lifelong struggles with mental illness. It sounds like they also want people to appreciate that this was a lifelong battle for her, and I think perhaps want people to focus on how she managed all these years," she said. "She clearly was very resilient in so many ways. And I think that's an important piece of her story. We don't want that to get lost by focusing solely on potentially how her life ended."
What Wynonna and Ashley Judd's statement didn't say
As much as conversations about mental health are deepening and widening, experts say losing someone to suicide can still feel stigmatizing and shameful, which is why some fans expressed a desire for the family's statement to be more explicit about the cause of death.
Naomi Judd's official cause of death has not been made public, though that hasn't kept fans from speculating.
Suicide is a leading cause of death in the United States and suicidal thoughts are common. In 2020, an estimated 12 million American adults seriously thought about suicide, 3 million planned a suicide attempt, and 1 million attempted, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
"I do think it is constructive to name, when there is a case of suicide, what the person died from so that we can have conversations about where people can get help and what help looks like," Goldstein-Grumet said.
At the same time, celebrity suicides often receive outsized attention from media organizations, quickly leading to sensationalism, and sometimes inadvertently causing more deaths. Mental health experts say exposure to media coverage of a high-profile suicide, especially coverage that fixates on the specific details of a person's death, can lead to more suicides.
'My mama loved you so much'
Naomi and Wynonna Judd were inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame on Sunday, and during the ceremony, actress Ashley Judd addressed the crowd.
“My mama loved you so much – and I’m sorry that she couldn’t hang on until today," she said. "Your esteem for her and your regard for her really penetrated her heart, and it was your affection for her that did keep her going in the last years."
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No matter how someone dies, experts say a grieving family gets to decide how they talk about that death and what details to disclose.
"I hope that no one is knocking down your door when your mother dies asking if you're saying everything right," Foreman said.
Goldstein-Grumet said this statement probably felt like the best way to honor Naomi's life and vulnerability.
"This is a family who also went through a lifelong journey of ups and downs," Goldstein-Grumet said, "and this gives us the opportunity to acknowledge how brave she was for sharing her story for many years, the incredible way that her family grappled with this, came to terms with it, supported her, and continues clearly to support her even in the way they phrase her death."
Suicide Lifeline: If you or someone you know may be struggling with suicidal thoughts, you can call the U.S. National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-TALK (8255) any time of day or night or chat online.
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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Naomi Judd death: Ashley and Wynonna's statement raises questions