Joining forces

Donor-supported conference improves mental health and substance-use treatment in the community

By Brelyn Powell


As a captain in the Richmond Police Department overseeing narcotics investigations, Michael Zohab gained a unique perspective on the nationwide opioid crisis.

“In recent years, we had started experiencing a drastic increase in accidental overdoses,” Zohab says. “Our department was moving away from arresting individuals for trace amounts of drugs when they overdosed, but we were still so limited in what we could do to help them get proper treatment.”

In 2016, Zohab began building community partnerships to garner financial support for people who could not afford drug-abuse treatment. Within a year, he had secured enough funding to start the Virginia Recovery Foundation and had placed more than 70 people in recovery programs. Today, VRF also facilitates prevention-education programs for middle and high schoolers and statewide training for law enforcement and probation officers.

Although he retired from the police department in 2017, Zohab is still on the front line assisting those struggling with addiction.

The College Behavioral and Emotional Health Institute (COBE) at Virginia Commonwealth University recruited Zohab to talk about VRF’s work and his hopes for the future of addiction treatment and criminal justice at the 2017 From Research to Recovery town hall. Each year, the conference attracts a diverse audience of researchers, professionals, students and community members to discuss the latest findings on substance use, treatment and mental health.

Research shows that mental illness and substance-use disorders are increasingly prevalent among teens and adults. Experts report that treating one issue can reduce a person’s chances of developing the other, and that addiction is more likely if substance use begins at a young age. To address the growing rate at which members of the community face these challenges, the VCU College of Humanities and Sciences launched COBE in 2015.

The institute promotes health and well-being on campus and in the community by integrating research with related coursework, programming and policy.

“As a public research university, we believe that finding solutions to problems in our community is part of our mission,” says COBE Director Danielle Dick, Ph.D., a professor in VCU’s departments of Psychology and Human and Molecular Genetics.

“Our institute conducts cutting-edge research on addiction, mental health and the promotion of well-being and brings this research to the public in ways that can benefit our community.”

COBE partners with the Wellness Resource Center in the Division of Student Affairs at VCU to host From Research to Recovery as part of its efforts to unite and inform researchers, practitioners and members of the public. With financial and programming support from the Virginia Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Services and other sponsors, the town hall provides these stakeholders, who often operate in silos, with a unique opportunity to explore collaborative solutions for prevention, treatment and recovery.

“It’s amazing for one event to bring together so many motivated people who are all devoted to solving these problems,” Zohab says. “It provides opportunities to interact with other professionals who don’t always cross paths but are invested in the same cause.”

The event also features student speakers from VCU’s collegiate recovery program, Rams in Recovery.

“Having research, the clinical experience, advocacy voices and student experiences of substance use and recovery make this conference a unique and powerful experience,” says Tom Bannard (M.B.A.’16/B), program coordinator for Rams in Recovery and lead organizer for the COBE town hall. “It really matters to our students that this topic is addressed in a such a comprehensive way on our campus.”

Recognizing that the town hall provided a much-needed platform for these professionals to share ideas, Zohab made a $1,000 gift on behalf of VRF to support the 2018 COBE town hall, which was held in April.

“Bringing a range of perspectives to the table is so important,” he says. “We are all working together to change the perception of substance-use disorders in the community. The COBE town hall is the perfect environment for that.”


Majken Whitaker (M.Ed.’01/E) attended the inaugural COBE town hall in 2016 and has returned both years since. Her experiences inspired her to employ a more collaborative approach in her responsibilities as an intervention counselor for Hanover County Public Schools in Virginia.

“I work directly with middle and high school students, but I also provide information for faculty and parents,” explains Whitaker, who serves as the primary point of contact for students and families seeking counseling or resources pertaining to substance abuse. “Prevention education is one of my responsibilities, and a large part of that is being a source of information to not just my students but also to any of the school staff members with whom they have contact.”

The Hanover County school system offers a day of professional development each summer for interested faculty and staff. After attending the 2016 COBE town hall, Whitaker recognized an opportunity to share valuable and relevant information with her colleagues. She reached out to some of the conference organizers and speakers and invited them to facilitate a session during the training.

“It was really informative,” Whitaker says of the session. “They covered so many important topics – genetics, the brain, how different substances impact the body. My colleagues who attended gave really positive feedback, so now I’m always thinking about what connections I can make at future COBE events to help me continue bringing that information back into my school district community.”

The town hall is just one of COBE’s initiatives. The institute’s community outreach efforts include partnering with Rams in Recovery to provide education and support to families of people struggling with substance misuse in the community through its Family Education Program, developing evidence-based prevention programming for local schools and partnering with the VCU Institute for Contemporary Art to host weekly lunchtime mindfulness sessions.

COBE also runs Spit for Science, a universitywide research study on college behavioral and emotional health, and uses the findings to create innovative coursework and programming for VCU students. One such offering is Science of Happiness, an academic course offered through the University College that uses research data to inform students of the biological, psychological and social factors contributing to mental health and wellness.

COBE has received government funding for its research and community programs but depends on the support of foundations and individuals who recognize the value of these initiatives to sustain them.

“Our goal is to raise awareness about what we know about the causes and treatment of substance use and mental health challenges and to start a dialogue about how better to tackle these challenges,” Dick says. “The contributions of our donors are critical to our ability to continue that work. We are incredibly grateful for their support.”

To learn more about VCU’s College Behavioral and Emotional Health Institute, contact Michael P. Andrews (M.S.’05/E), executive director of annual giving, at (804) 828-0236 or