“As somebody with a personality disorder, I’m torn about Amber Heard’s public 'diagnosis'”

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Photo credit: Sarah Coleman - Getty Images
Photo credit: Sarah Coleman - Getty Images

The ongoing Johnny Depp v Amber Heard defamation case has spawned endless headlines, comments and tweets, with some dubbing it the 'OJ Simpson trial of our generation'. It certainly has similar levels of public interest and can't-look-away-from-the-car-crash allure. To say it's morphed from what ought to be a sensitive case, given it is centred on serious accusations of violence and abuse, into somewhat of a circus (complete with vaping witnesses and seemingly 'meme-able' moments) would be an understatement.

And while yes, the case is predominantly about just two people, Depp and Heard, the ripple effect of the issues being placed under a magnifying glass will impact millions. Whether we like it or not, large-scale pop culture events (let's be honest, that's what it is) trickle in to our psyche. Opinions are formed and biases challenged, both for better - see: the incredibly vital discussion highlighting that men, too, can be victims of abuse and domestic violence - and for worse.

We pick up snippets of oversimplified water-cooler information and trade it on WhatsApp, TikTok and Twitter, and nuance is easily lost – something which is currently great cause for concern for people living with a personality disorder, after Dr Shannon Curry took to the stand and said that after twelve hours of interviews, and time spent reviewing Heard's medical records, she believes the actor to have two co-morbid personality disorders [Histrionic Personality Disorder and Borderline Personality Disorder].

One such person feeling stressed about the recent chatter is Dina, a 32-year-old from Brighton, who has Borderline Personality Disorder (also referred to as Emotionally Unstable Personality Disorder). "Initially, I wasn't following the case too closely," she explains. "But when I saw the mental health-related headlines, I just thought 'Okay, here we go... this is going to create huge stigma and will be extremely negative for those suffering from BPD', regardless of the outcome of the case."

She adds that although she knows she "shouldn't have", Dina read the comments under some of the articles reporting on the trial. "A lot of them said things like 'I knew she was crazy!' 'Fucking borderlines!' 'I'd never date a borderline' – as if we're not people, we're just solely defined by our disorder. It was really upsetting, especially, I imagine, for people who are younger than me or newly diagnosed, I've luckily had time to come to grips with BPD."

Photo credit: Dina/Sarah Coleman
Photo credit: Dina/Sarah Coleman

Dina says moving forward, she'll be more hesitant about disclosing her BPD diagnosis. "People might think 'Oh, Amber Heard has that and look at how she's meant to have behaved, I guess Dina is going to be the same! Maybe I shouldn't get too close. If I want to leave and get some space, is she going to react badly?' [...] If you weaponise a diagnosis, it doesn't just impact Amber Heard, it impacts everyone with BPD."

The use of a mental health diagnosis for legal situations is controversial, agrees Dr Dawn Starley, author of Challenging Perfectionism and Educational Psychologist, who's worked in a psychiatric hospital and within the community supporting patients with various personality disorders. A multi-disciplinary approach, rather than an individual expert drawing conclusions, is advisable too, she says.

"This case is highly nuanced and although yes, a proportion of women with personality disorders do display exaggerated and aggressive behaviour, this is not to be considered typical of all women with personality disorders," Dr Starley explains, adding that many are managing their symptoms well within the community. It's also important to point out that physical violence can occur through self-defence – and we're still partway through the trial, meaning there's still more evidence to be presented.

"Psychologists are registered professionals whose role it is to help, not harm; to increase understanding of a person's need so that support can be found. The role of a psychologist in a court case feels more conflicted, as they are perhaps employed to 'find a problem', or at least highlight details that may ultimately support the case against the person they are assessing.

"I imagine Amber Heard feels somewhat betrayed by the experience of having two personality disorders named in a public arena by someone she spent 12 hours opening up to, before having these discussed individually with her in a more supportive environment (if this is what happened). Perhaps this may also be considered an invalidating, or traumatic experience, that may compound rather than support her needs, whether or not these are symptomatic of full-blown personality disorders."

These are sentiments Dina shares, "Before my diagnosis and getting support, I did act in ways I'm not proud of, due to experiencing such overwhelming emotions, although I have never committed acts of violence even close to those Heard stands accused of. Since learning about my disorder, I've really taken it upon myself to work on not reacting so quickly, or having outbursts."

In general, rather than attacking a loved one, women with personality disorders are more likely to cause harm to themselves, and Starley states they're also more likely to be in an abusive relationship than a woman who does not have a similar diagnosis.

"Women displaying exaggerated or aggressive behaviour should not automatically be assumed to have a personality disorder either," Dr Starley also cautions. "There's a long history of 'gaslighting' when it comes to women and mental health, and it's lasted for centuries. Consider the 'value' to men of having women classified as 'mad' or 'mentally unstable'.

"[Amber's] double diagnosis makes for dramatic headlines and sadly, the engrained and persistent 'mad woman' narrative lives on, as it apparently provides such great entertainment value. The stigma around personality disorders in general is huge; could you imagine declaring you had one on a job application?"

Photo credit: ELIZABETH FRANTZ - Getty Images
Photo credit: ELIZABETH FRANTZ - Getty Images

However, we also can't gloss over the significant impact that may be felt by those close to a person with a personality disorder, caveats Dr Starley – again highlighting the need for nuance when it comes to discussing and forming opinions on mental health conditions. "[Partners, friends and family members] can experience feeling abused or gaslighted themselves. The negative experience for some is substantial, which is the argument being put forward by Depp [a male] in this case."

The expert advises that it's unlikely a single conversation would provide enough information to give an accurate diagnosis, however 12 hours of interviews will build a much clearer picture of patterns and tendencies, and adds that ultimately, at the heart of BPD and HPD is deep suffering and a need for validation.

"These labels shouldn't be synonymous with 'liar' or 'violent', but they do help us acknowledge how, in some situations, a person may behave in ways we struggle to accept or understand.

"They're an explanation for behaviour, but not an excuse. Whether they're found 'guilty' of unacceptable acts and having to face their reasonable consequences, or not, the person still needs support."

What is Borderline Personality Disorder?

Education is key when it comes to mental health, here Dr Starley explains typical BPD traits include:

  • High levels of impulsivity

  • Significant difficulty managing emotions (they are more intense and volatile than a person without BPD)

  • A deep sense of emptiness

  • Turning to coping mechanisms that provide immediate relief, but are damaging in the long-run (e.g. alcohol, drugs, binge-eating, gambling, sexual promiscuity, self-harm, dissociation)

  • Unstable relationships, based on a deep-rooted fear of abandonment and rejection and presenting often as anxiety or anger

  • When the above is combined with disturbed thought patterns, including paranoia, the symptoms can result in volatile and self-sabotaging behaviour

  • It is also highly linked with having experienced childhood abuse (particularly sexual) and suicide

What is Histrionic Personality Disorder?

  • A significant need to be the focus of attention, which - when is not present - can cause deep discomfort and lead the person to behave in dramatic ways

  • They often show great charm, creativity and are 'the life of the party', however they're highly suggestible and tend to seek almost constant reassurance and approval, so can appear somewhat ‘shallow’ in their interactions with others

  • A person with HPD often uses their physical appearance in seductive ways to draw attention to themselves and although they may seem to lack empathy, they actually lack self-awareness and emotional intelligence in general, therefore are at high risk for depression and suicide

How are personality disorders diagnosed?

A 'personality disorder' is a way of describing the situation for those people who consistently think, feel and behave in ways that significantly differ from 'the norm' or expected, says Dr Starley. "To get a formal diagnosis, these things must be present over time, cause significant difficulties with functioning, and not be attributable to other conditions, e.g. an underlying physical health need or neurodiversity, such as Autistic Spectrum Condition."

Personality develops from a combination of genes, upbringing and experiences that happen to us while we're still developing – something that happens up until our twenties, and is the reason why a personality disorder cannot be diagnosed before adulthood. Around 10% of the population meet the criteria for a personality disorder.

May is International Personality Disorder Awareness Month and mental health charity, Mind, say it's important to shine a light on the inadequacy of services for people with this diagnosis. Their pages on seeking help for a mental health problem provide guidance on having your say in your treatment, making your voice heard, and overcoming barriers.

Mind also have a confidential information and support line available on 0300 123 3393 (open 9am - 6pm, Monday – Friday).

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