You may or may not know about the court case involving the actor Johnny Depp and his ex-wife Amber Heard. In 2018, Heard wrote in the Washington Post about being physically abused. Now, “Depp is suing for $50 million in damages and denies ever being physically violent with Heard. Heard is countersuing for $100 million and claims she was only ever violent with Depp in self-defense or defense of her younger sister.” Alone, this topic does not warrant a post on this blog, but the case took a turn when Shannon Curry, PsyD, MSCP, a psychologist for the prosecution, claimed that Heard had borderline personality disorder (BPD) and histrionic personality disorder (HPD). Historically, people with BPD are seen as challenging, a label which turned into aggressive and uncontrollable, and finally violent. An overwhelming quantity of studies investigating possible links between BPD and violence contribute to the stigma from a scientific standpoint, and Hollywood representations of the disorder affect the popular culture representation. Moreover, diagnoses are rather vague: to have BPD and HPD, you only need to demonstrate five of the nine traits listed, and even then, whether or not a person exhibits a certain trait is largely left up to the judgement of the clinician. As soon as BPD enters the discussion, regardless of the person in question, so too do the unreasonable and exaggerated stereotypes. The author of the article, Emma Flint, who has BPD, argues writes that “In my own relationships, I’ll admit, I have a terrible temper. I personally suffer with awful mood swings, often accompanied by rage and hysteria. Does that sound extreme? Yes. Does that make me a bad person? No. I may go to dark places, but the most harm done is always to myself, not to someone else.” BPD is terribly misunderstood by the general populace.
Twitter exploded after the diagnosis, vilifying and canceling Heard. Here is one of the posts (trigger warning – some of the things that people say here are upsetting). As Flint says, regardless of whether or not Heard has BPD and whether or not she is guilty, using mental illness as some sort of infallible silver bullet in a court case is unacceptable and only serves to promote rigid stereotypes and stigma. In my opinion, another problem that arises is the conflation of the factionalization of celebrity culture with mental health. What I mean is social media has fractured into camps supporting either Depp or Heard, with strong opinions on both sides. Opponents of Heard took this diagnosis and ran with it, possibly demonstrating confirmation bias. It’s fine to hate Amber Heard, but that hate should not extend to BPD or other mental health diagnoses. Nor should one person’s hateful perception of BPD “prove” Heard’s guilt.
Moreover, the dichotomization of Heard’s supporters and detractors – you either love her or hate her – only enforces the single, extreme representation of BPD in popular culture: either you’re some sort of narcissistic sociopath, or you’re not. The very terminology of a court case – someone vs. someone, winner, loser, innocent, guilty – also reinforces the idea that in every case, someone is wrong and the other is right. While I won’t deny that that is the case in some trials, the decisions and judgements that contribute to an “either/or” verdict are much more complex than the outcome suggests. Adding mental health into the fray suggests that it, too, is binary.
However, mental health is a potentially important facet of a court case. If confirmed by multiple sources, a diagnosis can and should be considered in the face of charges if it is relevant. The problem here, however, is how this information is delivered to the public. Amidst existing stigma against BPD, the coverage and wording of Heard’s diagnosis only reinforced the negative perception. When interpretation is left completely up to the public, of course the prevailing mindset (i.e. stigma and misunderstanding) will prevail. It is the implicit social responsibility of people such as Curry to make sure that evidence in court cases cannot be misconstrued and misunderstood, indirectly harming other people. When that is not possible, that responsibility falls to ordinary citizens, to challenge problematic ideas and offer balanced insight.