FLORENCE, Ala. (WHNT) – The Alabama Department of Mental Health (ADMH) and University of Alabama VitAL program hosted a conference in Florence on Tuesday, January 17.

Shanna McIntosh, Director of the VitAL Program, told News 19 that they are a research initiative group at the University of Alabama. Their goal is to find better ways for medical professionals and first responders to communicate with people who are dealing with substance abuse or mental health issues.

“We’ve got judges, we’ve got counselors, and treatment advisors,” McIntosh said. “We’ve got peers that are going to be able to help answer some of the questions that we know we have.”

McIntosh said that it can be difficult for medical professionals to overcome biases. However, when dealing with patients that have these issues, it’s very important to remain unbiased in your care.

“What can we do, as a group and as a professional, to be able to ensure that we’re diminishing that within ourselves as well?” McIntosh said. “How can we eradicate the stigmas that we feel and the biases that we feel?”

The program began with keynote speaker Damon West. West is a former college football player and business owner from Texas.

West told News 19 that he was sent to federal prison for organized crime after becoming addicted to methamphetamines. During that time, he began to understand how drugs and mental health can impact people’s lives.

“Substance abuse affects everybody in this country. It doesn’t matter if you’re the addict, the family member, a friend of an addict, the victim of an addict, the taxpayer,” West said. “I got to have a front-row seat for how much of an impact in the criminal justice system mental health and substance use truly play.”

To learn more about the VitAL program, you can go to their website here.