Naomi Judd wants to banish the stigma of mental illness

After the deaths of Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain, the Grammy-winning country singer will be in Detroit to discuss how depression almost took her life

Susan Whitall
The Detroit News

Just as singer Naomi Judd was calling a reporter last week to discuss her upcoming appearance in Detroit, news about designer Kate Spade’s suicide came over the transom. It has been reported that Spade, 55, suffered from depression, but resisted going to a treatment center, fearing it would damage her company’s image. Days later, CNN host and celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain took his life at 61.

Judd barely missed being another statistic.

Country singer and author Naomi Judd, who has been diagnosed with bipolar II disorder, details her struggle with childhood abuse and mental illness in the book “River of Time.”

In 2010, after coming off the last date of a reunion tour with daughter Wynonna, Naomi Judd, 72, was mired in despair. She’d even picked out the bridge where she would end her life. But as she documented in her 2014 book “River of Time: My Descent into Depression and How I Emerged with Hope” (Hachette), with the help of therapy, medication and the support of friends and family, she managed to get through it.

In the past few years, celebrity suicides have come at an alarming clip: singer Chris Cornell in Detroit in 2017; Robin Williams in 2014. The Center for Disease Control released a report last week that suicide rates increased in nearly every state from 1999 through 2016.

Naomi already knew how prevalent pre-suicidal depression was. After “River of Time” came out, she received calls from numerous celebrities going through the same darkness — in secret.

“Of course, I did whatever I could to counsel and encourage them, and I would never out them,” Naomi said, in a phone interview Tuesday from her Tennessee home. “But I was always hoping that they would come out themselves. Because we have to reduce the stigma, we have to let people know, it’s a disease of the brain.”

Naomi will be the keynote speaker at a June 19 luncheon at The Roostertail to benefit the nonprofit organization Team Cares Inc., which supports people with mental illness and addiction. She is enthusiastic about the nonprofit’s mission.

“One of the things (Team Cares) does is, they take someone with a chronic mental illness or substance abuse disorder, and they help them have a better life by figuring out how to get them food or clothing, or if they’re homeless or unemployed, how to help them with that,” Naomi said. “If you tell somebody ‘OK, you’re going to have a better life if you go to recovery,’ how are you going to go to recovery if you are homeless or unemployed or hungry, or you don’t have a car? So they help meet basic needs.”

Mental illness stalked Naomi’s Kentucky family for generations. There was a murderous great-great-great grandfather, and suicide in each generation of the family.

Growing up in Ashland, Kentucky, Judd was molested as a very young girl by a great-uncle. By 18, she was pregnant with daughter Wynonna, and abandoned by her boyfriend. She married another boy, Michael Ciminella, and had daughter Ashley in 1968, but the marriage soon ended. Judd raised her two daughters in an often tumultuous home as a single mother, scraping by.

Naomi Judd describes growing up with an alcoholic father and emotionally distant mother in her 2016 Center Street book.

When a musical career beckoned, Ashley was often alone as Naomi and Wynonna toured the country as The Judds, racking up 23 hit singles and earned five Grammy Awards during their 10-year run. (Ashley recounted her own childhood sexual abuse and bout with mental issues in her 2011 memoir, “All That is Bitter and Sweet”).

In Naomi’s earlier memoir, “Love Can Build a Bridge,” she depicted her Appalachian family as plucky and resourceful. Father Charles owned a gas station in Ashland and her mother, Pauline, worked on and off as a riverboat cook. In “River of Time,” the veil drops, and Judd describes growing up with an alcoholic father and emotionally distant mother.

“In that first (memoir) I was sort of rhapsodizing, creating the mother that I wanted, the one I thought America would like to hear about,” Judd said. “In ‘River of Time’ I tell the unvarnished version. I just came back from Ashland, Kentucky, in Appalachia. I was with my mom. She’s mellow, she’s 90 years old. She actually said she loves me and that she was proud of me. That was a biggie. I waited a long time to hear that.”

Naomi hasn’t discussed what she wrote about in “River of Time” with her mother — not her early abuse or later struggles with mental illness.

“It’s too painful, too much like her own story,” Naomi said. “If you read the book, you know what a survivor she is. Her great-grandfather was a mass murderer, her mother murdered her father. She was left to raise herself and two siblings when she was just 12 years old. From there on it just went downhill. She’s had an incredibly painful, hard life.”

Naomi’s mental breakdown happened after she came off the road with Wynonna for that last time in 2010. She spent days in her pajamas, in a darkened house, and wouldn’t seek help until her husband and daughters insisted.

Over the next several years she tried a series of treatments, including medication and electroconvulsive therapy, in Nashville and Boston, but nothing seemed to work. With 911 calls by her husband and Ashley, and numerous hospitalizations, how did her condition stay a secret in such a notoriously gossipy music town?

“I live on a remote farm, and everybody is so busy getting off and on their bus and playing off in Washington state,” Naomi said. “Then when they’re home, they’re redoing their makeup kit to get ready to go out again. I just stayed real hidden. And my husband, Larry (Strickland, a former backup singer with Elvis Presley), had gone out on the road with Wynonna, as her manager. So he wasn’t even here with me.

“I was really isolated, which is one of the things you don’t do. I even isolated myself from my girlfriends — I call them the Divine Secrets of the Ya Ya Sisterhood, we are really a tight bunch and we love each other dearly. They tried and tried, they would come over, but I’d lock the door and hide behind the curtains. I just didn’t want anybody to see me that way, I was so ashamed. And I really was scared, I didn’t know what to make of what was going on with me.”

After many treatments and doctors, and therapy for what was diagnosed as bipolar II disorder, Naomi finally found relief in a regime.

“I go to therapy. I have my girlfriends. I know how important it is to pay attention to my relationships, my marriage of 38 years, my children, my pets — I have four dogs,” Naomi said.

Meanwhile, Naomi is proud of Ashley, who filed a lawsuit against disgraced movie mogul Harvey Weinstein in the spring over his attempts to sink her acting career after she refused his sexual advances. Ashley is part of the team of actresses who launched the Time’s Up legal defense fund to help women without her financial resources.

“It’s for women who had to leave their job or got fired because of the issue, and can’t make their rent because they aren’t employed anymore,” Naomi said.

As for mental illness, Naomi said she wants to help banish the stigma associated with the disease.

“I want to remind people, it’s a disease of the brain, just like heart disease is a disease of the heart, and diabetes is a disease of the pancreas,” she said. “We have to find ways to cure it. There are researchers around the world working to find out about depression and about bipolar, and I just pray that any day I’m going to wake up and the headlines are going to say ‘Depression cured.’

“Until then, we have to have coping mechanisms, we have to have each other and we have to know some of the tools to use. I’m so sad to hear about Kate Spade. I’m talking out of school here, but if somebody had really been there for her, I have to wonder if she could have been saved.”

Susan Whitall is a longtime contributor to The Detroit News. You can reach her at

Luncheon with Naomi Judd

The Grammy-winning country sing will discuss depression, suicide

and how she’s helping others heal and recover

in a program sponsored by the nonprofit Team Cares Inc.

11 a.m. June 19

The Roostertail

100 Marquette Drive, Detroit.

Tickets: $50. Table of 10: $500. Call (313) 274-3700, ext. 300 or email