The National Eating Disorder Association (NEDA) has disbanded the staff of its helpline and will replace them with an AI chatbot called “Tessa” starting June 1. The decision comes on the heels of the staff’s decision to unionize after a slew of pandemic-era calls led to mass staff burnout. The six paid employees oversaw a volunteer staff of roughly 200 people, who handled calls (sometimes multiple ones) from nearly 70,000 people last year.
NEDA officials told NPR the decision had nothing to do with the unionization. Instead, said vice president Lauren Smolar, the increasing number of calls and largely volunteer staff was creating more legal liability for the organization and wait times for people who needed help were increasing.
“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,” she said.
Former workers, however, call the move blatantly anti-union.
“NEDA claims this was a long-anticipated change and that AI can better serve those with eating disorders, wrote Abbie Harper, a helpline associate and member of the union. “But do not be fooled—this isn’t really about a chatbot. This is about union busting, plain and simple.”
The creator of Tessa says the chatbot, which was specifically designed for NEDA, isn’t as advanced as ChatGPT. Instead, it’s programmed with a limited number of responses meant to help people learn strategies to avoid eating disorders. It is not a sympathetic ear.
“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,” Dr. Ellen Fitzsimmons-Craft, a professor of psychiatry at Washington University’s medical school who helped design Tessa, told NPR.
NEDA is in the process of winding down the helpline now.