Free training available to UTRGV students to enhance behavioral healthcare

UTRGV Clinical Instructor Eluterio Blanco, SBIRT program manager and clinical assistant professor, Department of Rehabilitation Services and Counseling in the College of Health Affairs, is seen here teaching students about grant writing. (UTRGV photo by Paul Chouy)

By Gail Fagan

RIO GRANDE VALLEY, TEXAS – APRIL 27, 2016 – A $945,000 grant to The University of Texas Rio Grande Valley will support free training for advanced undergraduate and graduate students pursuing healthcare professions.

The training is geared toward skills that will better enable students to discuss behavior changes with their patients and improve their health.

The co-principal investigators of the three-year grant from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) are Dr. Fred Ernst, professor of psychology and associate dean for Faculty Research and Diversity in the College of Liberal Arts, and Eluterio Blanco, clinical assistant professor, Department of Rehabilitation Services and Counseling in the College of Health Affairs.

During the four-hour training, labeled by SAMHSA as Screening, Brief, Intervention, and Referral to Treatment (SBIRT), students will learn interviewing techniques that emphasize motivating a person to consider doing something about a problem they might be experiencing, Ernst said.

“The technique, based on what is called Motivational Interviewing, is similar to a gentle ‘foot-in-the-door’ sales strategy to help people improve their health and well-being,” he said.

The strategy originally was developed for medical students to help people who are struggling with alcohol and tobacco use, but has shown to have applicability to a wide range of problems. The training since has been expanded to all health professionals or human service providers.

“Because many forms of substance abuse have become epidemic in our communities, SAMHSA has made a huge investment in facilitating SBIRT training to all of the many health-related professions, knowing its impact will save losses from the costs of substance abuse and mental disorder to society over time, as well as immeasurable suffering in the population of affected persons and their families,” Ernst said. 

Anyone likely to have a conversation with a person who might be feeling the adverse effects of an alcohol, tobacco or drug habit can be trained in this interviewing technique, which gently assesses the readiness of the person to change and nudges them in the direction of making that change.

Because it is non-confrontational, the technique has proven to be effective with a wide range of problems, especially ones that present to an interviewer embedded in a state of denial in which the person might not view the problem as a problem, Ernst said. 

“The most frequent question I have been asked in my 45 years as a mental health professional is, ‘How do I get someone with a problem to admit they have a problem and seek help for it?’ This technique is the answer, and it can be effectively taught in about four hours,” he said.

Blanco, an experienced addictions specialist who is who is completing his Ph.D., will supervise the training of students. Students will receive a certificate of competence upon completion of the training, which provides a significant distinction on their resume that might distinguish them from other applicants in job or graduate school applications.

The training, open to junior, seniors and graduate students, will be offered from 12:30-4:30 p.m. on Tuesdays, May 17 and 24, and Fridays, May 20 and May 27, on the Edinburg Campus; and on Tuesday, May 31, and Friday, June 3, on the Brownsville Campus.

Ernst and Blanco will also team teach a course during the Summer II term, entitled “Motivating Change in Addictions and Mental Disorder,” in which the four-hour training is embedded.

Students or faculty are interested in learning more about SBIRT training should contact Blanco at, or Ernst at

Register for the training by email at or

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