From the outside looking in, Doug Meijer had it all. A beautiful wife and daughter, great health and extraordinary wealth.
But Meijer – who has held many titles within the Meijer supermarket chain over the years – simply wasn’t happy. And he couldn’t pinpoint the reason at first.
“I had a beautiful beach house, I could buy what I want, golf when I want, work when I want,” Meijer said, during an interview with Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan. “Sipping a glass of wine, watching the sunset on a nice beach. What’s wrong with that? Sounds pretty good. A lot of people would probably like that gig.”
More than 20 years ago, Meijer recalled where he was and what he was doing when he realized something was off.
“My wife and daughter were away at horse shows, and I was alone taking care of the dogs. Something was missing,” he said. “You know, happy wife happy life, as they say. I tried to work on things. And I never really understood why people went to therapists. Here, I think it was a fine line between what’s being clinically depressed and what’s being sad and unhappy. And I think that’s such a gray area.”
Meijer went to therapy not long after, where he was prescribed antidepressant medication. By being transparent with his health care professionals, Meijer learned that he wasn’t exactly unique in battling depression, even with his high stature.
“(My doctor) said, ‘You would be surprised at the number of people in the community that are on some type of depression medication,’” Meijer recalled. “’People you know in the community. Well-known names in the community.’ And that really resonated with me. No one talked about that stuff.”
After making steady progress for roughly a decade, Meijer hit the roughest patch of his life in November of 2011. One single week threatened to halt years of progress he had made with his mental health.
While in California for a Tony Robbins seminar, Meijer’s doctor called him and informed him he had prostate cancer. Later that week back in Michigan, he finalized divorce papers with his wife. Then, the day after Thanksgiving, Meijer’s dad passed away.
“It was a really traumatic week, but fortunately, I think the seminar helped, and friends obviously helped and continued therapy helped,” Meijer said. “I got out of my comfort zone with that seminar. One day was on relationships, one day was on health, one day was on conquering fear. That couldn’t have been timelier to help me.”
Over the next handful of years, Meijer saw the specialists needed and got the surgery required to conquer cancer. His physical health now back on the upswing, Meijer was able to shift his attention back to his mental health.
Under the discretion of his doctor, Meijer made lifestyle choices that he said did wonders for his mind.
“He said, ‘Could you give up drinking for 30 days to give the depression meds a chance to work?’ Meijer recalled, of a doctor’s visit in 2019. “He said, ‘You’re going to be on a new depression med and if you gave up drinking for 30 days – alcohol being a depressant – why take an anti-depressant when you’re taking a depressant as well.”
Meijer didn’t just give up drinking for 30 days – he kicked alcohol for a year and a half, reaping both the mental and physical benefits in the process. “I lost 50 or 60 pounds,” he said.
Meijer cut down his sugar intake around this time as well and began to do yoga with his personal instructor twice a week. These lifestyle changes – along with medication and a strong support system – helped lead Meijer to a breakthrough.
In a better place than he’d been in years, Meijer was able to dedicate more of his time to mental health advocacy. Since about 2014 he had spoken publicly here and there about his mental health struggles. He began doing more of this just before the COVID-19 pandemic.
Meijer said there was one television interview he did that he’ll never forget, because of the interaction he had a while after it aired.
“I was going through the food line at a Qdoba grill, getting my naked burrito with no carbs and all that kind of stuff,” Meijer said. “And as I’m going through the line, getting close to the register, there’s a young woman ahead of me in line who said she’d like to buy my lunch. And I had a strange look on my face thinking, ‘Why would you buy me lunch, I can buy my own lunch.’ I didn’t know her at all. She said, ‘It’d mean a lot to me if I could buy your lunch.’ I had a blank, quizzical look on my face. She said, ‘I heard your interview on television, and my whole family has been challenged with mental health and brain health and addiction issues, and if Doug Meijer can talk about it, we can talk about it.’ So, she said, ‘we’re now talking about it, literally every day.’”
Much of Meijer’s mental health advocacy has come on behalf of the non-profit organization “i understand.” The Ada, Michigan-based charity has funded multiple mental health initiatives in the Grand Rapids area, including a sensory room for children who may have an autism spectrum disorder at Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital. “i understand” supports those who have lost loved ones to suicide and works to combat mental illness by hosting walks and apparel campaigns, offering support groups and training programs, and much more.
“Just being involved in any way I can helps me personally,” Meijer said. “Whether it’s going on walks with the ‘i understand’ group or speaking at events for ‘i understand,’ or just showing up and lending a name, anything that can spread the message is important to me. I still really haven’t met anyone that I know of that doesn’t know someone, or is related to someone, that has suffered some type of brain health, mental illness, suicide tendency or addiction. And we just got to get talking about it more.”
The 200,000 square-foot Doug Meijer Medical Innovation Building is slated to open later this year beside the Michigan State University Grand Rapids Research Center. The facility will feature Michigan's first total body PET/CT scanner, which will be used to treat patients for prostate cancer and neuroendocrine tumors.
Also, at the end of the year, Meijer plans to publish a book that chronicles his career, personal life, and mental health journey. When the book is out, it will be yet another medium for Meijer to reach others. A decade or so ago, he couldn’t imagine speaking in public so often, let alone speaking about a topic that can be viewed as taboo by some.
But Meijer is inspired to reach people like the woman he reached in the Qdoba line years ago. He’s using his platform for advocacy, and he’s enjoying every minute of it.
“I’ve never been open about being a great public speaker or wanting to do it,” he said. “But now that I can see I can make a difference, I want to do as much as I can. So, I would just say, talk to people about it. If you have an addiction, if you have suicidal thoughts, if you’re just feeling crappy, talk to somebody. There’s help out there.”
Photo credit: i understand/Doug Meijer