FIU awarded $1.9M grant to help train counselors for underserved populations

The money will help increase the number of social workers and counselors trained in behavioral health care.

The Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA)—an agency of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services—has renewed a four-year $1.9 million grant to help FIU increase the number of social workers and counselors trained in providing culturally and linguistically appropriate integrated behavioral health care for medically underserved populations and communities in South Florida. 

FIU’s Behavioral Health Workforce Education and Training Program (BHWET-Pro) will annually mentor 26 fellows through coursework at FIU and clinical internships with community partners, and provide fellows with tuition waivers and stipends.    

Eric Wagner, professor at Stempel College’s School of Social Work and FIU-BHWET-Pro’s principal investigator, shared that the quality of care provided by interprofessional teams is greatly enhanced when teams include social workers or counselors. These experts help address behaviors contributing to physical problems, like hypertension and diabetes, as well as treating mental health concerns, like depression, anxiety or substance use problems. Social workers and counselors trained in integrated behavioral health care for medically underserved populations will help eliminate health disparities experienced by ethnic, racial and sexual minority groups.

“Most of these primary care settings are not particularly well-prepared to treat the behavioral needs of underrepresented minority populations,” Wagner said.  “This is a big component of what our program is about. How do we address these problems and move people toward health and wellness, who otherwise wouldn’t get this kind of care?” 

Learning to work together as a team   

Sarah Coleman, a master’s student of social work at Stempel College, graduated from BHWET-Pro this summer. As an undergrad, she worked as an intern at an inpatient rehabilitation center for drug and alcohol use and didn’t want it to end.  

“I just absolutely loved doing that work. I felt connected to the clients there as some of my family members have struggled with addiction as well,” she said. “I wanted to be able to continue to do this work, and I knew getting my master’s degree was an important step in making that happen.” 

At Stempel College, she was selected by the director of the School of Social Work to participate in BHWET-Pro. The program set her up with an internship at Jackson Behavioral Health Hospital, where she was able to apply learnings from her BHWET-Pro coursework to the work she was doing in the field.  

“The program helped me understand the importance of having communication with your interdisciplinary team—working with doctors and nurses, and all these different people that are interacting with the same patient,” she said.  


Building confidence as a health care worker  

Accacia Russell, a master’s student of social work at Stempel College, was drawn to social work because of her passion for helping and connecting with people in need. One of her favorite components of BHWET-Pro was participating in a simulated clinical environment portraying patient scenarios she was likely to encounter in the field.  

BHWET-Pro partners with the Herbert Wertheim College of Medicine’s Albert and Debbie Tano Medical Simulation Center to provide simulated health care scenarios for BHWET-Pro fellows. The goal of these training sessions is to help build fellows’ confidence in speaking with patients experiencing different behavioral and emotional problems. Wagner and BHWET-Pro’s Clinical Training Director Staci Morris are present to give feedback and guide the students through the simulations.  

“We would have an actor playing a patient who had diabetes that also had a smoking and substance abuse problem, had housing instability, possible grief or mental illness, and the possibility of oppression. That’s like five different problem focuses right off the bat,” Russell shared. 

Russell says that the simulated clinical environment experience and the guidance she received from the program have helped her immensely with her current internship with the Veteran’s Affairs clinic in South Florida.  

“I had a copy and paste experience of what we saw in class, but this time, I had to deal with it on my own,” she said. “The program helped me feel a lot less alone and helped me not feel as anxious while providing care to my clients.”  

Wagner is proud of the fellows, like Russell and Coleman, who recently graduated from the BHWET-Pro program; he looks forward to the students that will be part of the fellowship in the near future. 

“It’s the joy of seeing these early-career clinicians develop and blossom into masterful clinicians,” he said. “They will really help our populations here in South Florida.” 

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