This article originally appeared in UTSA Today by Christopher Reichert.
AUGUST 26, 2021 — The University of Texas at San Antonio Department of Counseling will partner with the Department of Social Work and UT Health San Antonio to train a new generation of behavioral healthcare practitioners to meet the shortage of psychological services for children and teens at risk.
The four-year interdisciplinary project is funded by a $1.6 million grant from the Health Resources and Services Administration. This partnership will guide close to 100 students from additional disciplines to provide real-time services in the local region.
In 2017, the UTSA Department of Counseling received a similar grant to establish the Program for the Integrated Training of Counselors in Behavioral Healthcare (PITCH). The program allowed 12 clinical mental health counseling students each year with specialized training in integrated behavioral health to intern at primary care doctor’s offices throughout San Antonio. Four years and nearly 50 students later, the program has evolved into the PITCH Expanded Providers Program (PEP).
“In this new project we will continue placements in the primary care settings but adding additional disciplines and internship sites,” said Jessica Lloyd-Hazlett, project director and associate professor with the Department of Counseling.
Professor Heather Trepal serves as co-project director and will oversee the counseling track. Associate professor Heidi Rueda, in the Department of Social Work, oversees the social work track for students in the College for Health, Community and Policy. Mercedes Ingram, a licensed professional counselor from University Health, will serve as the project evaluator while associate professor Stacy Ogbeide, an expert in integrated behavioral healthcare from UT Health San Antonio, will serve as the project consultant and oversee the clinical psychology track for residents at UT Health San Antonio.
“Interprofessional education is an integral part of promoting team-based care within health care,” Ogbeide said. “I am excited to help with the development of PEP’s interprofessional education curricula to better equip our learners for team-based care practice upon graduation.”
Besides the benefit of higher enrollment numbers, the inclusion of other behavioral health disciplines will give students valuable insights into how these programs are similar and how they may differ. The grant will also foster interprofessional education, an essential component of the program.
“Even though sometimes students training in clinical mental health and school counseling take classes together, we don’t always do a great job of explaining what they do in their roles,” Trepal explained. “We’re going to also have to learn about clinical psychology and social work and how those interface as well, so there’s going to be a whole lot of learning and growth that goes on.”
Regardless of their track, each student will complete an internship in an integrated setting serving children, adolescents, and transition-age youth split over two semesters. Those in the clinical mental health counseling program will take courses toward a graduate certificate in integrated behavioral health and would complete their internships in a primary care office or be co-placed with a social worker.
School counselors, on the other hand, will complete their internships at their home campuses. Their courses will focus on integrated care in a school setting, including more advanced studies in addictions counseling. All the disciplines covered by the grant will experience interprofessional education content on a quarterly basis.
Students also receive a stipend as support to participate in the program.
“They’re getting the extra training but they’re also getting help to pay for part of that education, which is a secondary goal of our advocacy,” Trepal explained. “I think that’s important too, trying to strengthen our profession and strengthen the behavioral health workforce.”
Once the funding ends, Lloyd-Hazlett hopes that more primary care offices will see the advantages of integrated behavioral health, and directly support expanded opportunities for students.
“Being able to promote sustainability through working with the clinics to establish this service and its benefits—hopefully that will be something they can integrate into their programs,” she said.
The grant’s aim goes beyond workforce development in the mental health profession. It also focuses on community access. A primary task of integrated behavioral health is to increase accessibility to services by combining them.
“Often times, when people either need to seek help or are identified by either medical or behavioral health disciplines and they are given a referral to go somewhere else, they don’t always follow up on that,” Trepal said. “So any time you can put services together, it decreases stigma, eases access and follow-up on actually getting those services.”
In 2018, UTSA launched the Classroom to Career Initiative to focus on providing more UTSA students with experiential learning opportunities during their academic journey. The university’s 2028 goal is to have 75% of students complete some form of experiential learning prior to their graduation.