Sununu vetoes eating disorder bill after upheaval at national organization

By ETHAN DEWITT

New Hampshire Bulletin

Published: 07-05-2023 9:49 AM

It was a simple idea: a bill requiring the National Eating Disorders Association helpline to be added to New Hampshire student identification cards.

But in the months since House Bill 35 was introduced to lawmakers in January, the national organization that runs that hotline has faced major turmoil. In May, it announced it would be shutting down the human-run helpline and transitioning to a computer-operated chatbot named Tessa. Later that month, it temporarily suspended the chatbot as well, saying that some of the information given was “harmful” to users.

Citing that turmoil, Gov. Chris Sununu vetoed the student identification bill Friday after a wave of organizations that had endorsed it called on him to do so. That group included the bill’s sponsor, Democratic Rep. Rosemarie Rung of Merrimack.

Now, Rung is hoping to try again in 2024, this time partnering with a different organization and a different helpline.

“It’s not something that I think we should put off,” she said in an interview Thursday. “I think we need to make a good-faith effort to have government drive resources for people, especially youth that are suffering.”

The original idea for the student identification addition came from a Merrimack High School student, Matthew Brown. Brown had texted the helpline in summer 2022 with questions about an eating disorder. After a helpful exchange, he decided more students his age should know about the resources available. He reached out to Rung, one of his local lawmakers, for help.

When Rung filed a bill this year, Brown, 14, became one of its key advocates. He showed up to hearings and took questions from lawmakers. And he built his argument on statistics. Research from the National Institutes of Health has shown that people with eating disorders are at a higher risk of suicide than other populations; giving them resources to help address their eating disorder can also head off future mental health problems and suicidal ideation, Brown noted.

The bill soon gathered support from mental health advocacy organizations such as the National Alliance on Mental Illness of New Hampshire (NAMI) and New Futures. And it won over representatives and senators in both parties.

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But the organization that ran the helpline soon ran into controversy.

NEDA announced it was shutting down the helpline in early May, citing the difficulty it had in promptly returning people’s calls. Due to a high demand during the COVID-19 pandemic and a full-time staff of only five, about 46% of the calls that went into the organization were not immediately returned, Lauren Smolar, the vice president of mission, said in an interview with the Bulletin in May. The organization was also concerned that its operators were classified as mandated reporters for mental and physical health concerns and could be held liable if they didn’t take sufficient action, NPR reported.

But some of the helpline operators later said they were frustrated by the decision to shut down the service. And they noted that it came shortly after they had attempted to unionize in late April.

“A chatbot is no substitute for human empathy, and we believe this decision will cause irreparable harm to the eating disorders community,” Helpline Associates United said in a public statement on Twitter on May 26. “We condemn NEDA’s decision to shutter the helpline in the strongest possible terms.”

Initially, Rung and Brown were not deterred by the end of the helpline. The association’s chatbot, Tessa, would still provide valuable information for students, Rung argued in late May. At that time, she did not see the need to kill the bill, which was on its way to Sununu’s desk.

But when the association later announced that it was also putting the chatbot on pause due to complaints of harmful information, Rung changed her mind and reached out to Sununu, requesting a veto. NAMI also urged the governor to veto the bill, he noted in his veto message.

“Given the uncertainty around the National Eating Disorders Hotline moving forward, it would not be prudent to put the call line information on student ID cards at this time,” wrote Sununu in his veto message Friday.

Rung says there is still a strong need to advertise resources for young people, despite the hiccups. An eating disorder hotline could be an entry point for teenagers to identify and address other mental health issues, she said. Many might not feel comfortable calling a suicide prevention hotline – or might not be having suicidal ideation – but might try an eating disorder hotline if it were published, she said.

The opportunity might still exist, she says. After the National Eating Disorder Association announced its suspension of the hotline, another organization reached out to Brown and Rung: the National Alliance for Eating Disorders. That organization also runs a helpline.

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