EDINBURG — As preparations to offer a doctoral degree in clinical psychology are underway at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley, a professor leading the program was appointed to a national committee that might help put the region on the map.
Dr. Alfonso Mercado, a licensed psychologist and associate professor at UTRGV, splits his time between fulfilling two main roles at the university.
As associate professor of the department of Psychological Sciences, he is helping lead the way into the department’s first PhD program, set to start in the fall of 2019. And at the UTRGV School of Medicine, Mercado works with resident training for the Psychiatry and Neurology Department.
For the last three years, Mercado has also been devoting some of his time to serve as board member of the Texas Psychological Association, and just as this appointment comes to an end, he will begin 2019 with a three-year appointment at the American Psychological Association Committee on Rural Health.
Mercado, of Los Angeles, focuses on immigration and health, and he has completed studies pertaining to health, trauma and cultural values of immigrants.
“It’s something that I’m excited to be a part of,” he said. “Representing rural and underserved communities not only in our backyard but all of the United States, and how the necessity of mental health treatment and access to care and equity is so crucial.”
The issues with access to mental health treatment are vast in the Rio Grande Valley, as there is a shortage of 150 to 160 psychologists in the region when compared to the national health standards, he said.
But there are clear cultural stigmas preventing people from seeking mental health services, and also preventing youth in the region from seeing these roles as potential careers.
Mercado and his students have incorporated important Latino cultural values, norms and characteristics and tied them to evidence-based treatments that haven’t been studied with cultural groups in the United States.
“We’ve looked at the simple translation of that protocol and incorporated cultural values,” he said. “For example, we emphasized familismo, familia… different roles in Latino families in the delivery of those interventions.”
Providing access to care that fits a community’s cultural perspective, could save the nation millions of dollars in healthcare issues that could be prevented, Mercado said.
Issues such as anxiety and depression may very well be mistaken by other health conditions, or could lead to chronic health issues such as obesity and diabetes, which are prevalent in Valley communities.
“Many people go to the emergency room thinking it’s a heart attack, but it’s a mental health disorder, like panic disorder,” he said. “This is where psychology and psychologists play a big role. Let’s focus on the behavioral health; their eating patterns; their depression; their anxiety. Ultimately if we see change, it’s a huge preventative model of illnesses like diabetes or obesity.”
As part of the committee, Mercado will meet with the different appointees in Washington up to four times a year and will also work on initiatives to tackle access to care and other issues nationwide.
The association works alongside federal and state agencies, as well as national associations to finding better ways to reach underserved communities like South Texas. Some of these initiatives include telehealth, which uses telecommunication or electronic means for access to health care; and even loan-repayment programs for students interested in working in underserved communities.
“We are going to work at initiatives with all of these communities in the United States, hopefully, and trying to see how to increase treatment initiation, looking at cultural competency initiatives in some communities like hours, for example, seeing what they have available, the needs and ultimately going to congress and the state legislature,” Mercado said.