AUSTIN, Texas — A $480,000 federal grant will fund master’s degree students in the School of Social Work at The University of Texas at Austin for a program that will prepare them to work as behavioral health specialists in health care facilities that treat underserved populations.

Issues the specialists would discuss with patients include ways to address obesity and smoking as well as depression, anxiety and other mental health issues. The patients would be seen in a clinic instead of being referred elsewhere for these services.

The three-year grant from the Health Resources and Services Administration is part of the agency’s effort to increase the number of social workers and psychologists available to provide care to underserved populations, military personnel, veterans and their families.

“The School of Social Work has a strong record of educating social workers to deliver behavioral and mental health services,” said Luis H. Zayas, dean of the school and the program’s principal investigator. “This grant enables our faculty to prepare students to serve vulnerable patients in full partnership with other health care professionals.”

Care provided by the program’s behavioral health specialists could be among the expanded services offered to uninsured patients by the planned teaching hospital and medical school.

The students in the Integrated Behavioral Health MSSW Scholars Program for Underserved Populations will have field placements in federally funded health care centers and military health facilities. The program represents a unique opportunity for social work students to work as members of health care teams to provide integrated care to patients.

The agencies where the students will train and work are CommUnityCare clinics in Travis County, Lone Star Circle of Care facilities from Austin to Temple, and Central Texas Veterans Health Services, which has medical centers in Temple and Waco and an outpatient clinic in Austin.

The grant will provide $15,000 a year in stipends for a total of 19 students in the program as well as funds for training and field placements. The School of Social Work is accepting applications for the program, which begins in summer 2013.

The school seeks applicants interested in providing culturally appropriate, integrated behavioral health services, including individuals who are bicultural and speak Spanish and English, military veterans and active duty military personnel and their immediate family members, and those from other underrepresented groups.

“This is a great opportunity to receive financial support that might not be otherwise available to earn a master’s degree in social work,” said Diana DiNitto, a professor in the school who is involved in the program. “People who have experienced mental health and health care service shortages in their communities and understand the stigma often associated with mental health care might be quite motivated to pursue a degree that can address these needs.”

Along with intensive field instruction, the students and personnel in the health facilities will be trained in inter-professional, team-based approaches to integrated behavioral health. They will receive education and coaching on evidence-based practices such as Motivational Interviewing and Screening and Brief Interventions.

Social workers are well positioned to be the behavioral and mental health care specialists in health care teams.

“They know behavioral health,” said Mary Velasquez, a professor and associate dean for research in the School of Social Work. “We’re really ramping that up to teach how to function as a fully integrated health care team. Social workers are going to be equal partners in these teams.”

Upon graduation, social work students will be prepared to work as behavioral health specialists who serve high-need and high-demand populations, and provide their expertise to health care teams.

“This is a great example of how social work pairs with the community to educate students and provide vital services,” said Tanya Voss, assistant dean for field education. “Our students provide more than 200,000 hours of service in the community through our internships each year. This grant will allow us to serve especially vulnerable populations in a more targeted way through new and expanded agency partnerships.”