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Personality Disorders

Hollywood Court Case Considers Who's More Violent

Celebrity conflicts may increase stigma of mental illness.

Key points

  • Courtroom drama between Johnny Depp and Amber Heard involves multiple accusations and diagnoses that stigmatize personality disorders.
  • Borderline personality disorder and histrionic personality disorder are characterized in isolated ways that may lead to misunderstanding.

How perfect!

May is Borderline Personality Disorder Awareness Month, and nowhere but Hollywood can better heighten awareness about important issues. Perhaps you’ve read about the courtroom brawl between actors Amber Heard and Johnny Depp on the back pages.

Depp cites defamation and is suing Heard for fifty million dollars after she authored an op-ed describing her experience as a victim of domestic abuse and subsequent suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. Although Depp is not specifically named in the piece, he argues that, as the ex-spouse, he is clearly implied as the perpetrator and it has caused significant harm to his reputation and ability to continue in his profession (to the tune of fifty million dollars).

Although the trial's purpose is to determine if the article inaccurately and maliciously defamed Depp, resulting in monetary damages, it has devolved into a contest of who is crazier and more violent. Both partners have claimed mistreatment and violence from the other. The result is more stigmatization of mental illness, in general, and personality disorders, in particular.

Recordings of violent threats by Depp have been introduced into evidence. Shannon Curry, Ph.D., a licensed, though not board-certified, psychologist, has testified about her psychological evaluation of Heard. Curry was hired after dinner and drinks with Depp and his attorneys at Depp’s house. After an extended interview and review of psychological testing, Curry diagnosed Heard with borderline personality disorder (BPD) and histrionic personality disorder (HPD).

Curry emphasized Heard’s fear of abandonment, causing a possible violent response. BPD, the doctor said, can be “a predictive factor in women who implement violence against their partner.” Curry cited exaggeration of symptoms, especially on psychological testing, as contributing to her diagnosis of HPD. In Curry's assessment, this overstatement of symptoms and attention-seeking, melodramatic behavior negated the diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) that she claimed.

The sordid details of the case invite salacious interest. Schadenfreude blossoms when celebrities publicly display their private affairs. But such events, as they are conveyed to the general public, increase the stigmatization of psychiatric diagnoses. As often portrayed in other instances, BPD is cited as a diagnosis that implies dramatically wild and violent behavior. HPD is portrayed as a weapon of seductive, manipulative, and overly emotional women.

Such depictions do not describe most individuals—men and women—with these diagnoses.

In the end, many will accept that both parties incited fury at each other. There may be a distaste for all the parties involved in this case. But what will linger are impressions of BPD and HPD as disorders, mostly in women, that unfairly imply hopelessly pathological behaviors.

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