The Health Behavior Research and Training Institute (HBRT) at the Steve Hicks School of Social Work (SHS) has been awarded $1.3 million by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to engage social workers in the prevention of alcohol and other substance use during pregnancy.

Under the leadership of Drs. Mary Velasquez and Kirk von Sternberg, the new four-year grant will continue a partnership that began in 2014 between HBRT and the National Association of Social Workers (NASW) as members of CDC’s Collaborative for Alcohol-Free Pregnancy. Most recently, HBRT and NASW worked together on “Reaching Healthcare Professionals to Prevent Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders (FASDs),” a $1 million CDC grant to educate primary care professionals about risky drinking among women and promote universal screening and brief intervention.

As the largest provider of mental and behavioral health services, social workers are integral to primary prevention of substance-exposed pregnancies (SEPs). Nearly 14% of pregnant people reported current drinking and about 5% reported binge drinking in the past 30 days, according to a recent study. Another study found that 40% of those who drank during pregnancy said they also used one or more other substances, most frequently tobacco and marijuana.

“Taken together with the fact that half of pregnancies are unplanned, these numbers show the need for social work to lead in the effort to address this urgent public health issue,” said Mary Velasquez, Ph.D., the grant’s principal investigator and professor and director of HBRT.

In the new project, HBRT and NASW will participate in a cohesive, multidisciplinary FASD champions network that will include partners in pediatrics, family medicine, obstetrics-gynecology, nursing, and medical assisting.

HBRT and NASW will also work together to develop and disseminate evidence-based SEP messaging through NASW’s communications platforms; expand community, state and local capacity to address prenatal substance use through existing hospital partnerships; evaluate NASW membership knowledge and practices; and implement innovative, updated methods to inform and educate social workers about prenatal substance use.

“These strategies will allow us to arm thousands of social work practitioners with the evidence-based messaging, tools and skills they need to help prevent substance-exposed pregnancies,” said Kirk von Sternberg, Ph.D., co-principal investigator, associate professor, and associate director of HBRT.

The Health Behavior Research and Training Institute at The University of Texas Steve Hicks School of Social Work has over two decades of experience in working with the CDC and other federal and local partners to develop and disseminate programs to prevent SEPs. NASW is the largest membership organization of professional social workers in the world, with over 120,000 members and 56 chapters.