Guest Post - Jim Denison
The death of Naomi Judd and “the disease of mental illness”
Naomi Judd and her daughter Wynonna were inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame yesterday. However, only Wynonna and her sister, the actress Ashley Judd, were in attendance, since their mother had died the day before. They tweeted on Saturday, “Today we sisters experienced a tragedy. We lost our beautiful mother to the disease of mental illness. We are shattered. We are navigating profound grief and know that as we loved her, she was loved by her public. We are in unknown territory.”
Naomi Judd’s story was truly improbable: the daughter of a gas station owner in Kentucky, she gave birth to Wynonna when she was eighteen and Ashley four years later. After she and their father divorced, she brought up both daughters as a single parent. She attended nursing school before beginning a singing career with Wynonna.
The duo went on to record twenty top ten hits (including fifteen number ones) and won five Grammy Awards. However, Naomi struggled with depression and suicidal thoughts for years.
She told People magazine in 2016, “Nobody can understand it unless you’ve been there. Think of your very worst day of your whole life—someone passed away, you lost your job, you found out you were being betrayed, that your child had a rare disease—you can take all of those at once and put them together and that’s what depression feels like.”
Depression now affects one in three US adults
Naomi Judd’s struggles are far from unique. Depression rates among US adults tripled when the pandemic first hit, jumping from 8.5 percent to a staggering 27.8 percent. However, new research from the Boston University School of Public Health shows that depression has now climbed to 32.8 percent, affecting one in every three American adults.
According to the World Health Organization, “Depression results from a complex interaction of social, psychological, and biological factors.” It notes that people who have gone through adverse life events such as unemployment, bereavement, or other traumatic occurrences are more likely to develop depression. This can be a vicious cycle: “Depression can, in turn, lead to more stress and dysfunction and worsen the affected person’s life situation and the depression itself.”
How can we help those suffering from such devastating pain?
I am emphatically not a mental health professional and do not intend to offer clinical advice today. However, I have been a minister for over forty years and have walked with many families through deep valleys of mental illness. Across these years, I have learned this crucial fact: faith in Christ does not exempt Christians from profound suffering, mental illness included.
“Seven saints who struggled with depression and doubt”
God called David “a man after my own heart” (Acts 13:22 NIV). David was Israel’s most beloved king and the ancestor of our Messiah, and yet he nonetheless prayed in Psalm 13:
How long, O Lᴏʀᴅ? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me? How long must I take counsel in my soul and have sorrow in my heart all the day? (vv. 1–2).
After defeating the prophets of Baal in one of the most courageous and transformative events in Scripture (1 Kings 18:1–40), it was not long before the prophet Elijah prayed, “It is enough; now, O Lᴏʀᴅ, take away my life, for I am no better than my fathers” (1 Kings 19:4). The prophet Jonah, after witnessing a miraculous spiritual awakening in Nineveh, became so angry with God that he said, “It is better for me to die than to live” (Jonah 4:8).
In the midst of his sufferings, Job testified, “My soul is poured out within me; days of affliction have taken hold of me. The night racks my bones, and the pain that gnaws me takes no rest” (Job 30:16–17). And the prophet Jeremiah once became so discouraged that he exclaimed, “Cursed be the day on which I was born!” and asked, “Why did I come out of the womb to see toil and sorrow and spend my days in shame?” (Jeremiah 20:14, 18).
In Companions in the Darkness: Seven Saints Who Struggled with Depression and Doubt, Diana Gruver continues the story. She dedicates chapters to Reformation leader Martin Luther, writer Hannah Allen, missionary David Brainerd, hymn writer William Cowper, preaching genius Charles Spurgeon, Nobel Peace Prize-winning humanitarian Mother Teresa, and Nobel Peace Prize-winning civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
If you and I were to list the most significant and acclaimed people of faith across all of Scripture and history, would these not be included?
Learning from Job’s friends
I plan to say much more on our subject tomorrow, but for today I want to make this emphatic point: mental illness is illness. It is like cancer, heart disease, or any other disease. However, it is unlike other diseases in that its causes and symptoms are often less obvious to the rest of us.
A person with a broken arm wears a cast on their broken appendage. No one thinks to blame them for their misfortune or to question the depth and sincerity of their faith. We should treat those suffering from mental illness in the same way.
The last thing they need is our easy answers or simplistic theological explanations. The thing they may need most from us is our presence and compassion.
Job’s friends showed us what to do when “they sat with him on the ground seven days and seven nights, and no one spoke a word to him, for they saw that his suffering was very great” (Job 2:13). They showed us what not to do when they began to speak, questioning his faith, offering simplistic answers, and blaming him for his suffering.
“I have trusted in your steadfast love”
Do you know someone suffering from mental illness? If the Boston University report I noted earlier is true in your experience, one in three people you know is experiencing such pain. Would you pray for those you know and those you do not know? Would you ask God to show you how you can offer his compassion through your presence?
Are you suffering from mental illness? Know that you are far from alone. And know that your Father knows your pain, feels your suffering and loves you unconditionally.
After voicing his profound depression and discouragement in Psalm 13, David continued:
Consider and answer me, O Lᴏʀᴅ my God; light up my eyes, lest I sleep the sleep of death, lest my enemy say, “I have prevailed over him,” lest my foes rejoice because I am shaken (Vv. 3–4).
In ways he does not explain, God answered his prayer and David could conclude his psalm:
But I have trusted in your steadfast love; my heart shall rejoice in your salvation. I will sing to the Lᴏʀᴅ, because he has dealt bountifully with me (vv. 5–6).
I pray that you can make his prayer your prayer today.