ADHD News & Research

NEDA Shuts Down Eating Disorder Helpline

The National Eating Disorders Association unwisely shutters its national, toll-free helpline as eating disorders surge, particularly among adolescents and teens.

June 9, 2023

Since the COVID-19 pandemic began, we’ve seen an undeniable surge in the prevalence of eating disorders across the lifespan. Social isolation, increased stress, and interrupted access to sources of support likely contributed to the increase. The National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA) reported that calls to its helpline shot up 107 percent to almost 70,000 annually — and staff noted that calls weren’t confined to eating disorders. Callers often sought support for self-harm, suicidality, child abuse, and other mood disorders.

So it’s profoundly disturbing that, as of June 1, NEDA has shut down its helpline, removing a critical lifeline for some patients without alternative sources of support. Of the 30 million people in the U.S. who suffer from an eating disorder, more than 10,000 die from this annually. Eating disorders have the second highest mortality rate of all mental health disorders. It is estimated that only 10 percent of patients with an eating disorder ever receive any treatment, a number that is certain to rise with the termination of the helpline.

A Chatbot Replaced Trained Staff

Before being shut down, the helpline was replaced with “Tessa,” an artificial intelligence-powered interactive chatbot. But technology cannot provide the same level of one-on-one support or open-ended discussion as can trained staff and volunteers. In many cases, helpline callers disclosed for the first time that they had an eating disorder. Advocates worried that the new technology would alienate or intimidate patients at a particularly vulnerable time. That turned out to be a moot point. After sharing harmful advice, “Tessa” was dismantled last week, leaving no NEDA helpline at all.

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Lack of Funding

Historically, eating disorders have been one of the more challenging mental health disorders for which to access care, and with research funding for eating disorders proportionally lower than it is for conditions like depression and ADHD, the shortage of high-quality care won’t likely improve anytime soon. NEDA has shuttered a critical source of care and understanding for many callers in their time of dire need. There aren’t other easily identifiable national call-lines to serve as a replacement. Also disturbing is the revelation that this change came after workers tried to unionize to ensure better pay and working conditions, as well as adequate staffing to meet the demand.

Teens in Crisis

NEDA’s actions come just months after the U.S. surgeon general, in a rare public advisory, warned of a devastating mental health crisis among adolescents. The crisis is often blamed on social media, where damaging dieting content often masquerades as harmless and pro-health. Teenagers who diet have 5 to 18 times the risk of developing an eating disorder than their peers who don’t diet. Eating disorders often begin in adolescence, and now that vulnerable group of teens is left without a lifeline.

For families searching for help and support, NEDA still provides thorough eating disorder information, links to resources, and general advice, but there is no replacement for the helpline that gave people one-on-one help and compassion at a critical time. It’s not too late for NEDA to bring back the helpline and reinstate their dedicated and mission-driven employees. And they should do just that. For parents concerned that their teen might be struggling with an eating disorder, now is the time to act and reach out to a professional who can make a diagnosis and recommend high-quality, evidence-based treatment.

The views expressed in this article are that of the author’s and do not necessarily reflect those of The REACH Institute or the Medical University of South Carolina.

Next Steps: Eating Disorders Treatment & Support

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