Professors and graduate student represented Liberty at Portugal seminar

Liberty University’s School of Behavioral Sciences experienced the opportunity of a lifetime when two of its doctorate professors were chosen to present their research on mental illness and substance abuse at the World Conference on Qualitative Research. 

Dr. Fred Volk, professor of counseling, and Dr. Fredrick Milacci, also professor of counseling, as well as doctoral student Jennifer Smith Ramey, represented Liberty University at the conference in the Algarve region in Portugal to share their extensive work on applied behavioral health services with researchers from more than 40 countries. 

“Our work in applied research helps people who are on the ‘front lines’ with patients that have serious mental illnesses such as psychosis, schizophrenia (and) severe depressive disorder,” Milacci said. “They are very marginalized, and most struggle with substance abuse, and we have had an opportunity to do research with programs that are actually delivering services to folks in need.” 

After partnering with Horizon Behavioral Health, Volk and Milacci focused their research on observing Horizon’s programs that are currently in place for patients and adjusting the design slightly to help the medical and psychological experts deliver those services more efficiently. 

According to Smith Ramey, Horizon’s representative as well as a doctoral student, Horizon’s vision is to provide behavioral healthcare services that are accessible, cost-effective and quality outcome-based for the Central Virginia community. 

“Horizon’s goal is to support and promote the health, independence and self-worth of individuals and families in Central Virginia by providing a continuum of community-based prevention, early intervention, treatment and aftercare services for persons affected by mental health, intellectual disabilities, substance use and co-occurring disorders,” Smith Ramey said.

With three hearts and minds focused on applied behavioral research, Volk, Milacci and Smith Ramey worked on how to use the money Horizon obtained from federal grants to provide better medical treatments and services for the community members that struggle with mental health and substance use problems. 

Once the qualitative research conference was announced, the three submitted an abstract of their research to the heads of the conference to be observed and critiqued. They were then selected to come and present their data and findings in Portugal.

“We made a decision going in that we were going to do the conference fully. We weren’t going to take time aside to do the touristy things. As soon as we landed, we checked out the conference setting and ended up bumping into the conference organizers and introducing ourselves and became quite acquainted,” Volk said.  

Volk said that every night after dinner, the three would walk around the old city and ports with other conference participants so they could socialize with other researchers and enjoy Portugal at the same time. Milacci explained that throughout the time of the conference, they became friends with lots of the other scholars and even had some moments to share a little bit of their faith.

“As Christians, we can sometimes forget about the fact that secular academics need Jesus too, and we can tend to avoid them because their positions are not aligned with ours,” Milacci said. “Dr. Volk and I both stress to our students that we want to do excellent work because it gives us an opportunity to share our ideas and faith to other scholars who may not know Jesus.”

The two doctors weren’t the only ones who felt the impact of the trip. Smith Ramey said that her experience in Portugal not only showed her the significance of their research, but also what it means to be a positive light within the research community.

“I cannot say enough positives about working with Dr. Volk and Dr. Milacci. (They) are top-tier scholars and researchers, but more importantly, they have a heart and passion for community work and making a difference for the most vulnerable and underserved,” Smith Ramey said.

The conference was not only a huge step for the Virginian community, but also for Liberty University. Volk said the research procedures and conference trip wouldn’t have been possible if it weren’t for Liberty’s Center for Research & Scholarship. 

“Our work is a testament to the Center for Research & Scholarship that advocated for this. It’s a testament to Dean Knapp who wants to really demonstrate the scholarly nature of behavioral sciences and the work that we’re doing. And it’s a testament to Horizon Behavioral Health and our partner Jennifer Smith Ramey,” Volk said. 

Smith Ramey said that with the research and data provided by Volk and Milacci, Horizon was able to effectively evaluate its rural health outreach and drug treatment court grants, achieve quicker research-to-practice pathways that promote quality improvement and add an evaluation approach for their partnerships with participants. 

“In the exchange of ideas and research, I saw that a common connection between Dr. Volk, Dr. Milacci and Horizon was the desire to do good things and make a difference to improve the mental health of our community. It was truly inspiring,” Smith Ramey said.

Wallace is a feature reporter for the Liberty Champion

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