Coping With the Crisis: Naomi and Naomi - Shelter Island Reporter

We recently learned of the tragic death of singer Naomi Judd. For most people, the idea of death by suicide is incomprehensible. Unfortunately, for many people, it’s something they live with every day.

In Judd’s 2016 book, “River of Time: My Descent into Depression and How I Emerged with Hope,” she writes about a hellish three years before receiving treatment. When interviewed by Savannah Guthrie of NBC’s Today Show, she described having been in a “deep dark hole,” sitting on a couch for two years in pajamas, unable even to brush her teeth.

At the time of the interview, she had successfully returned to her life. But her recent death shows us that even a “recovery” can remain so fragile that the dark hole can return and take over.

In June 2021, another hugely talented Naomi — Naomi Osaka —-withdrew from the French Open tennis tournament. She said at the time: “The truth is that I have suffered long bouts of depression since the U.S. Open in 2018 and I have had a really hard time coping with that.” 

She also said: “I feel uncomfortable being the spokesperson or face of athlete mental health as it’s still so new to me and I don’t have all the answers. I do hope that people can relate and understand that it’s OK to not be OK and it’s OK to talk about it. There are people who can help and there is usually light at the end of the tunnel.”

What these women have in common is more than a shared first name. Both are (and in Ms. Judd’s case, were) incredibly accomplished and at the top of their games. In fact, Ms. Judd was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame a day after her death. Clearly success is no shield against the darkness of depression.

Since 1949, May has been designated as Mental Health Awareness Month. This year, to commemorate the month, the White House issued a proclamation with  some important facts about depression:

• Even before the pandemic, millions of Americans were experiencing depression that was then exacerbated to create a mental health crisis. The rate of depression has more than tripled since 2019.

• Emergency room visits for attempted suicide among girls in 2021 increased by more than 50% compared to 2020.

• Fewer than half of Americans struggling with mental illness receive the treatment they need, and too many Americans feel ashamed to reach out for help, or are stigmatized when they do.

Make no mistake, depression is an illness just like cancer or heart disease. It’s not a failure of character or resolve. And when the sufferer feels that suicide is the only escape, the result is devastating. Maryland Congressman Jamie Raskin’s moving memoir, “Unthinkable,” describes in heartbreaking detail his talented son Tommy’s suicide last year. Tommy left a note that said, “Today the illness got the better of me,” and apologized to his family for what he was about to do. 

As bleak as this sounds, millions of people have been successfully treated for this disease.  However, an experienced therapist must first understand the nature of the depression, because the word has become a catchall for many different types of mood disorders (as well as a colloquialism for a mere bad day). An accurate diagnosis is imperative to guide the type of needed treatment.

Because there are many types of depression, interested readers can check out mayoclinc.org or nimh.nih.gov, or other reputable websites for more information on this subject, too vast to be covered here. 

But generally, anti-depressant medication and talk therapy have become the standard for optimal care. However, there are many approved anti-depressants and many types of talk therapy. A proper assessment should lead the patient to the best path, but sometimes trial and error are necessary.

Here on Shelter Island, we are fortunate to have a social worker available to all Islanders at no cost. Lucille Buergers works with community members who suffer from any kind of mental illness or substance abuse.

She will assess the need and refer to a psychiatrist or treatment facility as needed. She can be reached at 631-749-0301 ext. 151, or by email at [email protected].  All contacts with Ms. Buergers are completely confidential

The National Suicide Hotline number is 800-273-8255. Calls can be made in English or Spanish.

Naomi Osaka’s words that “it’s OK not to be OK and it’s OK to talk about it”- are simple and profound. Both Naomis should be saluted for their bravery in speaking out.

And Naomi Judd should be honored for her heroic fight even though, in Tommy Raskin’s words, the illness got the better of her.

Nancy Green is a retired social worker and a member of the Shelter Island Health and Wellness Alliance.

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