UTRGV gets $480,000 to train behavioral health professionals, provide services at community clinics

The UTRGV dean in charge of forging partnerships between the community and the School of Medicine was awarded nearly half-a-million dollars to increase the number of behavioral health professionals in the Rio Grande Valley, and at the same time, provide much-needed mental health services to residents living in colonias and rural areas.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA) awarded the funds to Dr. John Ronnau, senior associate dean for community health partnerships, to help fund a four-year training program.

The $480,000 grant will allow the School of Medicine to train 24 mental health graduates annually to serve as Behavioral Health Consultants and deliver high-quality integrated behavioral health services to patients at four Valley clinics, according to a university news release.

Integrated behavioral health is a form of health care in which mental and physical health are recognized as equally important aspects of a person’s quality of life.

“It requires medical providers and mental health professionals to work together to help their patients,” Ronnau said in a news release.

Understanding the needs of youth who are at risk of behavioral health disorders is of particular focus.

Among his qualifications, Ronnau is also a professor in the department of Population Health and Biostatistics in the School of Medicine, and director of the Area Health Education Centers (AHEC) Program, which provides primary healthcare clinics and other services in Cameron, Hidalgo and Starr counties.

The training program will be named the “Interdisciplinary Integrated Primary and Behavioral Healthcare” initiative, or I2PBH, and students will have training opportunities with patients at the three AHEC clinics and a mobile clinic in Willacy County.

The graduate students participating in the I2PBH program will receive training on both theory and clinical skills.

Students and faculty from the departments of Clinical Mental Health Counseling, Rehabilitation Counseling, Psychology and Social Work at UTRGV will collaborate to achieve the goals of the program.

It is projected that by 2025 the initiative will have trained 96 behavioral health consultants.

Dr. Michael Hocker, dean of the UTRGV School of Medicine, said a multidisciplinary approach to behavioral health care is essential to expanding access to services in the Valley.

“It is especially important to be able to improve our reach in the Rio Grande Valley’s underserved communities,” Hocker stated. “And training programs like this one mean we increase access to behavioral health services in colonias and rural communities, especially through our AHEC’s.”

Ronnau, principal investigator on the grant, credits the success of the application to Dr. Deepu George, associate professor of Family Medicine and director of Integrated Behavioral Health at the UTRGV School of Medicine.

“We believe the behavioral health interdisciplinary student teams that will be part of this grant will be a positive and strong complement to the primary healthcare services being provided by our AHEC program and the mobile clinic,” he said in the release. “Behavioral health services are greatly needed in our area [and] we appreciate HRSA’s allocation of resources to this project, which is designed to encourage behavioral health professionals to work in communities such as ours.”

Editor’s note: This story was updated with the final version.