Local mental health care to be addressed by UT with $1.8 million grant

Maria Mendez and Anna Lassmann

With a new $1.8 million federal grant, UT will train students to improve mental health care for low-income and uninsured populations in Travis County.

To address the lack of mental health care professionals in Travis County, the Health Resources and Services Administration awarded the federal grant to UT’s Integrated Behavioral Health Scholars program last Tuesday. Students in the multidisciplinary program will train with community partners, including local mental health authority Integral Care.

“This grant is an amazing opportunity to address the longstanding shortage of mental health professionals,” said Kathleen Casey, a clinical director for Integral Care. “We have a much greater need for an expanded mental health workforce that is culturally and linguistically competent.”

Austin’s recent growth has created a need for mental health professionals that can connect with underserved populations, Casey said. The program will focus on training 84 graduate students to become culturally aware mental health professionals.

“As Austin grows, so does its diversity, and we know that the research is pretty clear that therapeutic bond is enhanced by working with professionals who are culturally competent and are from similar backgrounds as those that are seeking services,” Casey said.

Dr. Stephen Strakowski, chair of Dell Medical School’s Department of Psychiatry, said the grant will provide support for minority groups and economically disadvantaged groups who have difficulty gaining access to necessary mental health treatments.

“We want to be able to build an infrastructure to allow more people to enter the mental health care workforce in order to provide care to those in need,” Strakowski said. “It is important that we build strong relationships between the healthcare providers and the community.”

Prior to this grant, the Steve Hicks School of Social Work received a smaller grant in 2012, which formed the foundation for the training and education of this new grant, said Robin Smith, clinical lead for the Integrated Behavioral Health Scholars program. The new program is a collaboration between the Dell Medical School’s Department of Psychiatry, the Steve Hicks School of Social Work, the School of Nursing and the College of Education’s Department of Educational Psychology.

“With our previous program, we trained 18 students, most of whom are working in the Central Texas area … and are already beginning to fill the gaps in behavioral health care,” Smith said. “We are really excited to capitalize on that success and put more really highly trained professionals out there to meet the needs of Central Texas.”

The selection process for the 84 students has not been decided yet, Robin said, but 12 Master’s of Social Work students each will receive $10,000 over the next four years. She said students will benefit from the hands on work and financial support and provided by the program.

“It will give students really good financial support while they’re in their placements or practicums,” Smith said.

The local program is a step in the right direction, but improving mental health care in the U.S. will take more work, Strakowski said.

“This is one piece of a very large effort to correct mental healthcare in central Texas,” Strakowski said. “But it is important to note that mental healthcare is an issue that needs to be addressed nationally as well.”