Chatbot to Replace Human Staffers at National Eating Disorders Association Helpline
Volunteers say the move, which came after staffers voted to unionize, will harm callers to the helpline
The National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA) is disbanding its helpline in its current form, replacing hundreds of staffers and volunteers with a chatbot named Tessa.
Nearly 70,000 people reached out to the helpline last year, according to a recent NPR report. Those numbers doubled during the COVID-19 pandemic, when volunteers and staffers recalled more “crisis-type” situations, with callers reporting not only disordered eating, but also self-harm, suicidal thoughts, and child abuse.
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Callers ranged in age from an 11-year-old who said her parents didn’t believe she was struggling, to a 67-year-old who was battling disordered eating by herself.
Staffer Abbie Harper told NPR that as the volume of calls increased, volunteers and staff were overwhelmed — so they voted to unionize.
“It’s so cliché, but we did not have our oxygen masks on and we were putting on everyone else’s oxygen mask and it was becoming unsustainable,” she told NPR.
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The helpline staffers notified NEDA of their intent to unionize; Four days later, NEDA announced during a staff meeting that they were effectively shutting down the helpline in its current form in favor of an automated chatbot named Tessa.
Lauren Smolar, Vice President, Mission and Education at NEDA, told NPR that the increase in crisis calls led to the volunteers being legally liable.
“Our volunteers are volunteers. They’re not professionals. They don’t have crisis training. And we really can’t accept that kind of responsibility. We really need them to go to those services who are appropriate.”
Plus, callers to the overwhelmed helpline were being put on wait lists, and Smolar adds “that’s frankly unacceptable, in 2023, for people to have to wait a week or more to receive the information that they need, the specialized treatment options that they need.”
And while some research does show that those who interacted with the chatbot fared better than those who just went on a waitlist, staffers — and those who created the chatbot — have said that Tessa just can’t replicate the human interaction of the helpline.
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“I do think that we wrote her to attempt to be empathetic, but it is not, again, a human," said Dr. Ellen Fitzsimmons-Craft, Professor of Psychiatry at Washington University, whose team developed Tessa.
“It’s not an open-ended tool for you to talk to and feel like you’re just going to have access to kind of a listening ear — maybe like the helpline was,” she told NPR. “It’s really a tool in its current form that’s going to help you learn and use some strategies to address your disordered eating and your body image.”
Harper said that since many of the volunteers are in recovery from disordered eating themselves, they’re able to relate to the callers and truly help them in a way that a chatbot just cannot.
“When you know what it’s been like for you and you know that feeling, you can connect with others,” Harper told NPR. “No one [who calls says], ‘Aw shoot, you’re a person. Bye.’ It’s not the same. There’s something very special about being able to share that kind of lived experience with another person.”
Dr. Marzyeh Ghassemi, Professor of Machine Learning and Health at MIT, told NPR that she doesn’t think the chatbot can help callers the same way the volunteers and staffers did.
“If I’m disclosing to you that I have an eating disorder, I’m not sure how I can get through lunch tomorrow, I don’t think most of the people who would be disclosing that would want to get a generic link: 'Click here for tips on how to rethink food,'” Ghassemi told NPR.
NEDA is no longer taking new calls or messages, and the transition to the Tessa chatbot is scheduled for June.
If you or someone you know needs mental health help, text "STRENGTH" to the Crisis Text Line at 741-741 to be connected to a certified crisis counselor.
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