UTRGV: Research - Psychologist Mercado focused on mental healthcare for Latino population

Dr. Alfonso Mercado (at center), UTRGV assistant professor of psychology, has included graduate students (from left) Julia Daccarett and Yvette Hinojosa and undergraduate students Melissa Briones and Abigail Nunez-Saenz in his research focused on improving mental healthcare for Valley residents.

Dr. Alfonso Mercado (at center), UTRGV assistant professor of psychology, has included graduate students (from left) Julia Daccarett and Yvette Hinojosa and undergraduate students Melissa Briones and Abigail Nuñez-Saenz in his research focused on improving mental healthcare for Valley residents. The research in part studies the effectiveness of Dialectical Behavior Therapy and its effectiveness with minority groups, including Latinos, and examines the effect of trauma on the health resiliency of recent immigrant mothers and children from Central America. (UTRGV Photo by Paul Chouy)

By Gail Fagan

RIO GRANDE VALLEY, TEXAS – JAN. 18, 2017 – Improving mental healthcare for Rio Grande Valley residents drives the work of Dr. Alfonso Mercado, a licensed psychologist and assistant professor of psychology at The University of Texas Rio Grande Valley. 

Mercado, who was elected recently to the Board of Trustees for the Texas Psychological Association, says mental healthcare in the Rio Grande Valley is in crisis. The national standard for psychological treatment is one psychologist per 10,000 people; the Valley falls far short of that, he says. 

“Right now, we are needing 100 of them to meet that standard,” he said. “Due to the lack of qualified professionals in South Texas, many individuals with mental illnesses are not identified. Most receive inadequate, or even no treatment.”

With that in mind, Mercado has directed his latest research to documenting the effectiveness of Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) within the Latino population. DBT is first-line treatment for Borderline Personality Disorder and other complex clinical disorders.

DBT USE/RESEARCH: Benefits for the patient

DBT, first conceived by Dr. Marsha Linehan in the late 1980s, is a structured therapeutic program that focuses on emotional regulation, stress tolerance, interpersonal effectiveness and mindfulness and meditation.

“Its effectiveness is well-documented through empirically validated research, but there is a lack of evidence supporting this approach with culturally diverse groups,” said Mercado, who currently is the only DBT provider in the Valley, other than the Veterans Administration.

This fall 2016 semester, Mercado instituted a free 17-week, specialized, Spanish-language DBT skills group project at Tropical Texas Behavioral Health.

The 17-week program contributes to efficacy research with ethnic minority groups, he said, and explores whether or not DBT as currently structured is effective with Latino populations or if cultural adaptations are warranted. The research includes pre- and post-testing, as well as comparisons with a control group undergoing treatment without DBT.

“Our preliminary findings have noted that patients diagnosed with anxiety, depression, and/or borderline personality disorder traits who complete the entire program experience a reduction in presenting symptomology, suicidality, reduction in psychiatric hospitalizations, and an overall better emotional regulation, distress tolerance, and increased interpersonal effectiveness,” Mercado said.

STUDENT PARTICIPATION: ‘Make a difference in people’s lives’

Mercado’s student researchers have been able to learn the basics of DBT and how to use this therapeutic method in a clinical setting with mentally ill patients. In fall 2016, several of his students participated in a poster presentation on a case study supporting DBT’s effectiveness at the “Mindscape: Behavioral Health Today” conference for healthcare professionals at South Padre Island hosted by Texas Tropical Behavioral Health.

Yvette Hinojosa, a graduate student in clinical psychology and one of the case study presenters, said being able to learn this therapy and co-facilitate a group is an amazing opportunity.

“You don’t usually get to participate in this environment until you have graduated,” she said. “It is helping me academically and professionally because I have this background now and I can put that on a résumé.”

Hinojosa, who plans to be a clinical psychologist, said their conference case study of a woman who completed the entire DBT program at Tropical Texas showed she had marked improvements in anxiety (severe to moderate), depression (severe to mild) and hopelessness (mild to minimal).

“You can really see how you can make a difference in people’s lives,” she said.

When the UTRGV School of Medicine’s first psychiatry residents begin in June 2017, Mercado will train them in psychotherapy.

He also looks forward to the initiation at UTRGV of a doctoral program in clinical psychology, currently under consideration, that will result in the production of more clinical psychologists who will remain in the community. 

NEXT RESEARCH: Trauma’s effect on immigrant health

Mercado also has a drive to investigate new questions regarding the Hispanic Health Paradox – a phenomenon found by earlier researchers in which Latinos in the United States are less likely to suffer from chronic disease or die prematurely than non-Hispanic whites, despite high rates of poverty and less access to education and healthcare.

In fall 2016, Mercado submitted a funding proposal with a faculty colleague at Sam Houston University to test the role of sociocultural resilience for this health advantage, including the collectivist values of family, interpersonal harmony and valuing of elder community members common in the Hispanic culture. However, his research will focus on recent Central American immigrant mothers and their children, and the potential role of trauma in the health of those fleeing unprecedented increases in violence in Central America.

“We have the perfect population to do this kind of research, with brand new individuals who have just crossed the border,” Mercado said. “This study is the first to include psychological factors (i.e., trauma) in a sociocultural model of the Hispanic Health Paradox, providing first data on how worsening conditions in Central America may thwart the Hispanic health advantage through the psychological mechanism of trauma.”

Mercado and his undergraduate students, with the cooperation of Sister Norma Pimentel – who directs the Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley and oversees an immigrant respite center at Sacred Heart Church in McAllen – have started volunteering at the center regularly.

“The students currently are observing the process of transition, and are helping the center with supplying the immigrants with basic needs like food, clothing and shelter,” said Mercado, who hopes to interview mothers and their children interested in participating in his research.

Undergraduate psychology student Abigail Nuñez Saenz, 20, said the volunteer experience at the center has been eye-opening, regarding both the immigrant experience and her long-term career goals.

“This is the first opportunity I’ve had to do first-hand research, and it has made me aware that I want to conduct research on the Hispanic population,” said Saenz, who was also part of a student team making a poster presentation at the Texas Tropical Behavioral Health conference. 

Mercado said this newest research proposal has great significance in light of the current global crises of overwhelming Middle Eastern and North African family migration, as well as the numbers emigrating from Central America.

“Identifying factors that relate both positively and negatively to the physical health of Hispanic immigrant women and children is critical to identifying vulnerabilities in need of future research, and ultimately intervention studies, and protective factors warranting public health attention for health promotion in other communities,” he said.

For more information on the DBT offered at Texas Tropical Behavioral Health, contact Mercado at alfonso.mercado@utrgv.edu or call (956) 802-9078.



Senior Writer / 956-665-7995


UTRGV Director of News and Internal Communications / 956-665-2742