On March 31, the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA) decided to replace its human associates with an AI chatbot named Tessa. Tessa was tasked with providing support to people with eating disorders.
However, this decision backfired when a weight-inclusive consultant named Sharon Maxwell spoke to Tessa and received problematic information on losing weight and healthy eating tips. Tessa gave her dieting advice while also acknowledging that society has unrealistic standards.
“If I had accessed this chatbot when I was in the throes of my eating disorder, I would NOT have gotten help for my ED. If I had not gotten help, I would not still be alive today,” wrote Maxwell.
When asked for healthy eating tips, Tessa provided tips that were restrictive and disordered. When asked for suggestions on losing weight, Tessa outlined how to lose weight safely and sustainably and claimed that weight loss could coexist with eating disorder recovery. NEDA then removed the chatbot from its systems.
In a statement, NEDA said, “It came to our attention last night that the current version of the Tessa Chatbot, running the Body Positive program, may have given information that was harmful and unrelated to the program.”
“We are investigating this immediately and have taken down that program until further notice for a complete investigation.”
The decision to replace humans with a chatbot began in May of the previous year when NEDA workers asked for adequate staffing, ongoing training, and opportunities for promotion.
“We didn’t even ask for more money,” wrote Abbie Harper, a former NEDA associate who helped launch Helpline Associates United (HAU), a union representing staff at the non-profit, in a post.
When NEDA refused their demands, the workers asked for recognition of their union which was also refused.
They then filed for an election with the National Labor Relations Board and won on March 17, 2023. Four days later, the workers were told they would be fired and replaced by a wellness chatbot beginning June 1, 2023.
The NEDA helpline workers expressed their heartbreak over losing their jobs in a tweet. They stated that a chatbot is no substitute for human empathy and that this decision would cause irreparable harm to the eating disorders community.
Eating disorders are behavioral conditions that affect up to 5% of the population. They are similar to addiction and are characterized by severe disturbance in eating behaviors and associated distressing thoughts and emotions.
Treatment for disorders like anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, and binge eating disorders should address psychological, behavioral, nutritional, and other medical complications.
While AI is slowly permeating almost all industries, there is still much debate over its use in the mental health sphere.