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UTRGV SOM awarded federal grant to train behavioral health consultant

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The UT Health Rio Grande Valley Area Health Education Center (AHEC) Primary Care Clinic in San Carlos. (UTRGV Photo by Paul Chouy)

Mega Doctor News

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By Karen Villarreal 

Dr. John Ronnau, PhD, senior associate dean for Community Health Partnerships, UTRGV School of Medicine. (UTRGV Photo by Jennifer Galindo)

RIO GRANDE VALLEY – Dr. John Ronnau, PhD, senior associate dean for Community Health Partnerships with the UTRGV School of Medicine, has been awarded a grant for an education and training program focused on increasing the number of behavioral health professionals in the Valley. 

The grant, $480,000 annually from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA), will help fund the four-year training program. 

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The grant will allow the School of Medicine to train 24 mental health graduates annually, Ronnau said, to serve as Behavioral Health Consultants (BHC) and deliver high-quality Integrated Behavioral Health (IBH) clinical services – such as assessment, evaluation, and intervention planning and implementation – to high-need communities. 

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 includes primary healthcare clinics and other services in Cameron, Hidalgo and Starr counties. “Behavioral health services are greatly needed in our area,” Ronnau said. “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.”


The training program – called the “Interdisciplinary Integrated Primary and Behavioral Healthcare” initiative, or I2PBH – will coordinate students’ experiential training opportunities with the three Area Health Education Center (AHEC) Primary Care Clinics, and in addition will provide services in Willacy County via a mobile clinic.  

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By 2025, the initiative will have trained 96 behavioral health consultants to provide integrated behavioral health services. 

Dr. Michael Hocker, MD, MHS, dean of the UTRGV School of Medicine, said a multidisciplinary approach to behavioral healthcare is essential to expanding access to services in the area. “It is especially important to be able to improve our reach in the Rio Grande Valley’s underserved communities, and training programs like this one mean we increase access to behavioral health services in colonias and rural communities, especially through our AHECs.”


Integrated behavioral health is a form of healthcare 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.

A special focus of the initiative is understanding the needs of children, adolescents and transitional-aged youth at risk for behavioral health disorders. 

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 integrated behavioral health model. 

The mental health professionals-in-training will carry out their practicum/internships by working alongside healthcare professionals in rural primary care settings.  

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. 

George and his staff provided expertise in the central topic of integrated behavioral health. 

“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,” Ronnau said.

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