When we address our own mental health, we sometimes need to hear from people who know what it means to suffer and find their way back to personal strength.
Kalamazoo College alumna Kristin Meekhof ’97 has, for many, been an example of that recovery. Meekhof began working in the mental health profession after earning her bachelor’s degree in psychology at K and a Master of Social Work from the University of Michigan. She now has more than 20 years of clinical experience and is a nationally recognized expert with published articles in and contributions to CNN, Today online, Katie Couric Media, Architectural Digest, Huffington Post, USA Today, the Chicago Tribune, Readers’ Digest, Maria Shriver Media and Psychology Today. She also has worked alongside alternative-medicine expert Deepak Chopra, M.D., F.A.C.P., and is a licensed therapist, life coach, speaker and best-selling author.
Yet before much of that, Meekhof suddenly was stricken with tragedy in 2007 when her husband, Roy, was diagnosed with adrenal cancer and died just eight weeks later. Her grief took a toll on her mental and physical health as she suddenly faced bills, single parenthood, balancing being a professional and a widow, and navigating social situations by herself. She sought out comfort and help in the form of reading material.
“I was living alone in November 2007 and I would get home from work around 6 p.m. when it was pitch black outside,” Meekhof said. “I’m not really one to watch television, so I started to read everything I could about grief and loss. It could’ve been a story of inspiration or resiliency or a medical journal about broken heart syndrome. I was really interested to see how people cope with loss and how they were able to thrive after a tragedy.”
After not finding many narratives about women specifically, she decided to travel the world and get as many stories as she could by speaking directly to women who had suffered a loss. The experience led her and a co-author, James Windell, to write A Widow’s Guide to Healing (Sourcebooks) in 2015.
“When we connect with another person’s story, it can help us find purpose and meaning as we’re inspired by others,” Meekhof said. “That meant I was traveling to Boston to meet with Christie Coombs, who tragically lost her husband on September 11 in one of the planes that crashed. I went to the backwoods in Montana where a very young widow lost her husband in a skiing accident. I went to Kenya where women live on less than $1 a day and have no running water. I went to the UK and these stories of women shaped the book. There were certain themes that really stood out like solo parenting, financial issues and relationship issues. I knew that offering practical advice was one of the ways to help women get through difficult times.”
Still, Meekhof said, none of those struggles can be wiped away when a woman simply reads the book once.
“The process is always ongoing,” Meekhof said. “The book is thematically connected, but the standalone chapters are what happens during different periods in life, whether it’s a child moving out of the home, someone suffering another loss or even happy situations like a promotion or completing a personal goal. The loss factors in and evolves in different ways, so people go back to my book or another resource because they feel a shift and want guidance.”
With the fight against grief being continual, many wonder what tools can be used to ensure some healing. Meekhof believes the best tool is gratitude.
“After a number of years, I decided that my book really wasn’t a mental health book,” she said. “It was actually completed stories of gratitude and resilience. The reason I use gratitude is there’s a lot of research that demonstrates an expression of gratitude improves one’s physical well-being. There have been studies, for example, that show heart patients who use gratitude have better outcomes over those who don’t. Before my late husband’s diagnosis, we kept a gratitude journal. It started before our marriage, and during his medical crisis, he encouraged me and us as a couple to continue our gratitude practice. It was a saving grace, because after he died, I knew I could help myself by resuming the gratitude practice. And it wasn’t until doing the research for my book that I found there was actual physical evidence that it changes one’s outlook and perspective with great implications for one’s physical and mental well-being.”
Grief and loss are intertwined with a rise in mental health concerns as people around the world have faced a loss of loved ones, periods of isolation and trauma in the era of COVID-19. The World Health Organization (WHO) identifies COVID-19 as the primary driver of a global mental health crisis that caused estimates of anxiety and depressive disorders to spike by 25% during the first year of the pandemic. Growing social and economic inequalities, protracted conflicts, violence and public health emergencies threaten to exacerbate the crisis even further with mental health services limited, disrupted or even unavailable.
That lifts the importance for World Mental Health Day, marked every October 10, to raise awareness of mental health issues around the world and mobilize efforts in support of mental health. In that spirit, and given the challenges that have faced higher-education communities since the pandemic, Meekhof has some recommendations for how Kalamazoo College can help its students.
“I would encourage the College to have a very open dialogue, for example, about something like anxiety because when we understand that anxiety is real, it becomes something that can be handled,” Meekhof said. “One can cope with it in a way that doesn’t have to be isolating or debilitating. It can help others to know that seeking professional mental health services is necessary for many and it’s nothing to be ashamed of. There’s a great stigma still about getting mental health services, that it’s a sign of weakness, that only certain people go out to get it, that once you start you’ll be dependent on it in every situation, and that’s really not the case. I would encourage faculty to take the lead and start to share their own mental health stories and guide students in that direction. It can be very encouraging for families as well so that parents and friends who notice a change in a student can encourage that student to get help.”
Looking back on her own time at K, Meekhof said the College has been the foundation for everything she does.
“It really has informed me in the way that I see the world, and offer compassion and understanding,” she said. “It was the education and the background, along with the support of professors, which enabled me to have my perspectives.”
Meekhof has another book project underway. This book is a project with Amy Young, Ph.D., of the Ross School of Business at the University of Michigan, which will look at how language can be used to facilitate authentic leadership in business and how exceptional leaders are strong communicators. But success in her own career isn’t defined by having another book. Instead, it’s defined by helping other people.
“Success for me is feeling very confident in the fact that I’m able to offer a bit of hope in somebody’s very dark time,” Meekhof said. “If my words or the resources I can lead people to can help alleviate sorrow, I feel that is being successful.”