Jonathan Evans is the co-founder & CEO of InnovaTel Telepsychiatry and is passionate about access to behavioral health care. With mental health hitting the headlines daily with Olympic athletes Simone Biles and Naomi Osaka sharing courageously and transparently about their mental health challenges, mental health solutions have never been more important. Yet they are often difficult to access when considering symptoms such as sleeplessness, anxiety, depression, or substance abuse since the rise of COVID-19. Evans wants to change that.

Evans’ goal is twofold. He wants to decrease the stigma attached to mental health issues, and at the same time, increase the ease and accessibility of mental health services for all, but especially for underserved communities where access is the biggest challenge. Given his track record, he’s well on his way.

The stigma around mental illness has caused it to be viewed and funded differently than other health challenges such as high blood pressure or diabetes. (The word “stigma” has its origins in Greek and Latin to mean a mark on the skin and evolved in the early 1600s to mean figuratively, a mark of disgrace.)

In the Middle Ages, patients struggling with mental illness were ostracized, beaten, burned, and jailed. More recently, patients were sequestered away into asylums for an average of eight to ten years. Later, asylums were replaced by state-run hospitals that, in turn, were closed in the middle to latter part of the 20th century in a move toward deinstitutionalization.

During the 90s, Evans was the founding president and CEO of the Safe Harbor Behavioral Health Clinic in Erie, Pennsylvania, where he was tasked with helping the regional state hospital downsize by providing intensive outpatient care and treatment to over 200 patients. As wards were shuttered permanently due to reallocation of state funding and a lack of political and social will, community clinics helped fill the gap in care. “Thankfully, we were quite successful,” says Evans, whose clinic provided the resources needed to close down the state-run children’s ward effectively. “Since that time, no child has been sent to the state hospital again,” he notes proudly.

Today, the mental health system is at its capacity for delivering care, and Covid-19 significantly increased the demand. “I get calls every day from parents who can’t get a timely mental health appointment for their child,” says Evans. “That’s a crisis that goes right to the heart of our mission.” And it’s not just the children.

In 2019, one in four Americans reported suffering from mental illness or substance abuse disorders (up almost 6% from 2018). In 2020, a Pew Research Center poll showed that 73% of Americans reported anxiety multiple times a week since the onset of the pandemic. Additionally, during the first week of the lockdown in March of 2020, more than 75% of all prescriptions filled for antidepressants, anti-anxiety, and anti-insomnia medications were new (as opposed to refills.)

The barriers to treatment are many. Whether an individual struggling with mental health is afraid to go to the doctor’s office because of shame or Covid-19, the results are the same: no treatment. Those that do go often face long waits and lack of availability—especially in rural areas. According to Mental Health America, at least 58% of American adults do not receive treatment.

“The most efficient method to resolve these issues is through a telehealth platform,” says Evans. The model that Evans puts forth is one that can work with a variety of partners to meet the greatest need possible—whether by a traditional mental health center, a private practice, a school, or an employer. Telepsychiatry removes obstacles around access and stigma.

The acceptance around mental health must continue. Without the ongoing attention in the media normalizing mental health issues, antiquated regulations that encumber mental health treatment and reimbursement would still exist, and there wouldn’t be the influx of public and private funding needed to support these new platforms.

Evans likens the cultural shift around mental illness to the change in perception around the AIDS pandemic. “People with AIDS and HIV were shunned and vilified,” he says. “It wasn’t until the issue became a platform in the media and Hollywood that it became more acceptable.” With that acceptance comes funding and treatment. “Nobody dies of AIDS anymore,” he adds.

With the national suicide rate increasing every year, amplifying the conversation around mental health is a must. “We should applaud women like Naomi Osaka and Simone Biles,” says Evans. “If they had a broken ankle or a torn ligament, no one would judge them for needing to take time to heal. The same is true for mental illness.”