UTEP, Sul Ross Partnership aims to improve mental health access in rural Texas counties

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Program will train UTEP, Sul Ross students to provide culturally competent mental health care | Photo courtesy UTEP

Officials with the University of Texas at El Paso, Sul Ross State University in Alpine, Texas, and Preventative Care Health Services (PCHS) in Presidio, Texas, announced Wednesday a new partnership that will develop a behavioral health specialists’ workforce to improve access to mental health services in five southwest Texas rural counties.

“What is significant about this grant is that it will build a behavioral health workforce in five rural binational Texas counties, which have been designated as medically underserved areas and health professional shortage areas,” said Thenral Mangadu, M.D., Ph.D., UTEP associate professor of public health sciences in the College of Health Sciences. “The COVID-19 pandemic has affected many people’s mental health and increased their risk for substance use disorder, depression and other behavioral health issues. Our goal is to build an interprofessional health care workforce that can address the growing mental health needs of residents in these underserved border communities.”

With support from a $1.9 million grant awarded by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) Health Services Resources Administration to PCHS, also known as Presidio County Health Services, UTEP and Sul Ross will train students to provide culturally competent mental health care to residents of Presidio, Brewster, Culberson, Hudspeth and Jeff Davis counties.

As one of the grant’s subcontractors, UTEP will receive $824,378.

“This community-engaged program will leverage and expand upon the existing interdisciplinary partnerships of UTEP’s Minority AIDS Research Center and a service provision in Texas Public Health Region 9/10 to build and sustain health care workforce capacity,” officials added.

Throughout the next four years, 16 UTEP and Sul Ross students will be selected each year for the rural Behavioral Health Workforce Education and Training program (BHWET). Program teams will work with community partners in Presidio and surrounding counties to provide students with hands-on practical experiences in local primary care clinics, rehabilitation facilities and other health care organizations. Students who are trained through the program will receive a stipend.  

Adrian N. Billings, M.D., Ph.D., PCHS chief medical officer, said the program will bring much-needed health services to the rural Big Bend region of Texas, which includes counties with some of the highest mental health professional shortage area scores in the United States.

“Training of these mental health professional students in these rural and underserved counties will hopefully translate to a workforce pipeline for the Big Bend and similarly under-resourced rural areas so as to decrease mental health care disparities,” Billings said. 

In total, the program will train 64 students who can be recruited to practice professionally in the region after graduation.

Barbara Tucker, Ph.D., dean of the College of Education and Professional Studies at Sul Ross, said the grant will provide opportunities to reduce mental health disparities in the Big Bend region, which is on the U.S.-Mexico border.  

“As a small university, Sul Ross has limited resources to implement larger grants independently,” Tucker said. “Our partnership with UTEP has opened the door for Sul Ross to take part in grants such as BHWET, which will also allow us to better serve our students and our community.”

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