2017 UTRGV Excellence Award in Sustainability Education Awardee Alfonso Mercado, Ph.D.

By Deborah Fitzwater Dewey, Office for Sustainability 

Edinburg TX, 4 May 2017:  While the stated goal of education is to provide knowledge both general and specialized, it serves the greater purpose of preparing well-rounded citizens of the world-- individuals with not just the knowledge and skills to develop theoretical solutions, but the desire and drive to enact tangible, positive change. To that end, sustainable development is rapidly being integrated into education worldwide, recognizing that an understanding of sustainability allows for a multifaceted approach to problem solving necessary for the long-time success of communities we serve. The University of Texas Rio Grande Valley is underscoring this idea with its mission to transform the Rio Grande Valley, the Americas, and the world through an innovative and accessible educational environment that promotes student success, research, creative works, health and well-being, community engagement, and sustainable development.

In selecting the 2017 candidates for this award, the Office for Sustainability (OFS) used the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education’s STARS (Sustainability Tracking, Assessment, and Rating System) Assessment tool to provide the parameters for this selection.  The nominations were based on the candidate’s incorporation of UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), and their contributions to the areas of Teaching, Research, and Service (TRS).  The UTRGV STARS Assessment Team focused the selection to faculty who had taught sustainability-related or sustainability-focused courses in their classrooms.  The ICSAC Advisory Committee took these recommendations, looked at contributions in TRS, and made their final selection.    

The 2017 Excellence Award in Sustainability Education was presented to Dr. Alfonso Mercado at the UTRGV Faculty Excellence Awards and Recognition Luncheon on May 4.  Originally from Los Angeles, Dr. Mercado is currently an Assistant Professor in the Department of Psychological Sciences at the University of Texas-Rio Grande Valley as well as a Licensed Psychologist. This summer (2017), he will receive a dual appointment from the Department of Psychiatry and from Neurology in the School of Medicine. As a National Register Health Service Psychologist, he provides psychological services to children, adolescents, and adults including individual therapy, specialized group therapies, and conducts psychological evaluations. Dr. Mercado received his BS and MS degrees in psychology at California Lutheran University in Thousand Oaks, California and completed his doctorate at the Fielding Graduate University, an APA accredited program, receiving a PhD in Clinical Psychology. His current research focus is on Latino mental health, personality, substance abuse, and multicultural interventions. Minimally, his works falls in the UN SDG areas of No Poverty (1); Zero hunger (2); Good health and well-being (3); Quality Education (4), and Reduced inequalities (10) (www.un.org/sustainabledevelopment/sustainable-development-goals). 

In addition to his professional career, Dr. Mercado serves his community in several capacities. He is a Board of Trustee for the Texas Psychological Association where he also serves as the Diversity Division Chair, is an active member of the American Psychological Association, a board member at the South Texas Psychological Association, and works with two other non-profit organizations in the community of the Rio Grande Valley.  His impetus for his work is the mental healthcare crisis here in the Rio Grande Valley.  While the national standard for psychological treatment is one psychologist per 10,000 people, Mercado states that the Valley falls far short of that.

“Right now, we need 100 psychologists to meet that standard,” he said. “Due to the lack of qualified professionals in South Texas, many individuals with mental illnesses are not identified with most receiving inadequate or no treatment.”

Improving mental healthcare for Rio Grande Valley residents compels the work of Dr. Alfonso Mercado.  The social justice perspective in psychological treatment is rooted in the belief that psychological treatment should be available to all people—all of whom have the right to equitable treatment and fair allocation of societal resources. As a clinical psychologist, Dr. Mercado finds it critical to play a role in decreasing healthcare disparities in underserved communities and working with culturally diverse groups, whether it is providing free specialized treatment programs or investigating factors that affect mental health treatment initiation and engagement in Latino populations.  Although RGV is underserved in many ways, its strengths and rich culture is what drives him to focus on mental health treatment with Latinos and investigating the Hispanic Health Paradox with recent refugees and immigrants at a Humanitarian Respite Center at the Sacred Heart Catholic Church in McAllen.

The impacts of his work are many.  One treatment, Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT), is empirically supported proven effective across clinical groups (i.e., depression, anxiety, substance abuse, trauma, eating disorder, bipolar, etc.); however, little is known about its applicability and effectiveness with ethnic minority groups. The ongoing clinical study of DBT explores its efficacy with Latino clients in a community mental health center, while graduate clinical psychology students are exposed to specialized clinical training and work in an interdisciplinary treatment team setting. Additionally, little is known about recent refugees and immigrants crossing the Rio Grande River. Examining the Hispanic Health Paradox, cultural values, resiliency, and trauma with this unique population is the first of its kind.

When delivered in a culturally responsive manner, Dr. Mercado’s findings indicate that DBT has a positive impact in reducing client symptomology and improving interpersonal effectiveness.  Findings provide support for cultural adaptation of the empirically supported DBT treatment protocol for Latino groups. Clinical implications and recommendations for clinicians and psychology trainees highlight the importance of providing supplemental and culturally sensitive interventions to an existing outpatient mental treatment program--enhancing treatment efficacy.

One concern that Dr. Mercado has is that despite decades of research on the treatment of mental illness, providing services to the public remains a significant concern. Among ethnic minority populations, there is a larger gap in the lack of service use. “Help seeking behavior” for professional assistance has been linked to a variety of variables including education level, stigma towards services, ethnic background, and cultural variables. Research on improving mental health outcomes in primary care settings has been prioritized over the years. However, ethnic minorities are often under-represented in outpatient mental health care settings. In his research, his findings identify factors that contribute to and hinder ethnic minorities’ use of outpatient psychiatric treatment. Help-seeking behavior among Latino Americans and its implications for improving care have also been identified.

This culturally adapted DBT treatment is being offered free at local community mental health setting and is the only specialized DBT program available in the community outside of Veteran’s Administration.  Graduate students in clinical psychology co-facilitate the group therapy with Dr. Mercado on a weekly basis for 17 weeks at a time. In the summer of 2017, Dr. Mercado and psychiatry residents from the School of Medicine will be providing culturally adapted DBT treatment program to the Rio Grande State Center Medical Outpatient Clinic in Cameron County. The students will work alongside an interdisciplinary mental health treatment team and assist Dr. Mercado in clinical research and DBT treatment in Spanish.

The Humanitarian Respite Center in McAllen, Texas, works diligently to restore humanity to a marginalized group by offering food, shelter, showers and hygienic items, courtesy calls to their relatives, a safe space to spend the night, and assistance with travel and immigration paperwork to incoming immigrants from Central and South America. The established partnership between the Humanitarian Center and the University of Texas-Rio Grande Valley allows students to obtain a firsthand experience of the arising immigration phenomena. In this enriching project, they better understand human behavior and psychological processes beyond the classroom lectures or textbook readings.

The integration of social justice into Dr. Mercado’s college courses provides an opportunity to engage students in social justice scholarship and research.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 Brianes and Abigail Nunez-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) He, along with his students, act in concert with core values and ethical standards for the purpose to improve the lives of others in real-world settings. Students are also exposed to meaningful experiences that help make ‘social justice’ a real thing, not simply a theoretical construct or aspiration.

Yvette Hinojosa, a graduate student in clinical psychology and one of Dr. Mercado’s students, said being able to learn about this therapy and to 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.

Published bi-monthly, my research students help me write a mental health column that is in a local RGV healthcare magazine. The articles cover an array of mental health topics to increase literacy and awareness and combat the stigma of mental illness in our community.  It is also rewarding for Dr. Mercado to see his students accepted into masters and doctoral programs when they graduate. After graduation, many students continue to help him in this research and writing, and many have presented at local, state, and national conferences or have published in peer-reviewed psychology journals. It is also rewarding knowing several have continued their interest in mental health treatment and in research with culturally diverse groups.


Fagan, G., (2017). UTRGV: Research-Psychologist Mercado focused on mental healthcare for Latino population, media advisory, http://www.utrgv.edu/en-us/about-utrgv/news/press-releases/2017/january-18-psychologist-mercado-focused-on-mental-healthcare-for-latino-population/.

Questions or Comments?

We invite you to Contact OFS for any questions and to Connect with us through Social Media

Connect with OFS