The Johnny Depp Defamation Trial: The Media's Damaging Portrayal of Personality Disorders

Trigger warning: This blog discusses domestic abuse and intimate partner violence which some readers may find distressing.


Celebrity scandals, cancellations, and turmoil are the coals that keep the fire of news outlet clickbait titles, damaging stereotypes, and sweeping generalisations roaring. It is part of our nature, as humans, to be interested in other humans’ lives, especially those we deem incredibly successful, famous, and wealthy. The idea sold is ‘How can rich people have problems?’ so the moment a celebrity’s troubles are publicised for all to see, some can’t help but indulge, and sometimes even revel, in their suffering. The suffering that signifies they aren’t any different from you or me.


In the spring of this year, we collectively obsessed over one of the most public, high-profile ordeals of our time. One which divided the internet, spawned hundreds of memes, and had Twitter detectives all charged up and entirely absorbed in its fine details.


The Johnny Depp Defamation Trial was a 7-week flaring feud between previously married celebrity actors: Amber Heard and Johnny Depp. The trial wasn’t the first defamation lawsuit fired between the two — only the first broadcast to millions online — yet this particular case garnered a baffling amount of attention, with thousands eager to give their own ‘two cents’ on the situation.


As a mental health researcher actively working to tackle and reduce the stigma surrounding mental health difficulties, my focus (and where my genuine interest lies) here is the portrayal of Amber Heard and her diagnoses by the media, and the consequent impact on the way mental health conditions are framed, particularly when celebrities are involved.


Amber Heard and Johnny Depp, walking out of the courtroom after one of the hearings. // Photo: GETTY IMAGES

Female Celebrity Mental Health in the Media


When the mental health struggles of a household name are strewn across the tabloids, it is easy for those of us who aren’t rich and famous to fall into the trap of forgoing empathy. Being a celebrity comes with its own ugly challenges and intense pressures, let alone mental health struggles; constant surveillance, every movement documented and scrutinised, every step becomes a spectacle. Distortions in the press and sensationalism have been around as long as ‘celebrity scandals’ have been a thing.


Countless female celebrities have had their mental health difficulties put under the microscope in a callous fashion over the years.


We all remember how Britney Spears was presented (and received) in the media following her decision to shave off her hair in 2007, branded as having a ‘public meltdown’, ‘erratic’, ‘mental’ and ‘crazy’. Earlier this year, Doja Cat also shaved her head, and tabloids, as well as her fans, were immediately worried for her mental health, speculating whether she needs professional help, despite Doja expressing the choice had nothing to do with her mental wellbeing. Other famous victims of tabloid journalism include Lindsay Lohan, Lady Gaga, and the late and great Amy Winehouse, to name a few. Their mental health, their struggles with addiction, their diagnoses, appearance and behaviour, all hot topics of discussion and juicy gossip material.


Amber Heard was also a victim of the tabloids throughout the Johnny Depp Defamation Trial.


Everybody had something to say about the pair on social media, whether it was #JusticeForJohnnyDepp or #AmberHeardDeservesAnApology, the majority seeming to favour Depp and attempting to preserve his image. Johnny Depp, being the world’s beloved Captain Jack Sparrow in Disney’s Pirates of the Caribbean series, didn’t receive nearly as much flak from the media or the internet. Moira Donegan, of The Guardian, described the trial as ‘an orgy of misogyny’, delving into the various ways Heard was publicly berated, and the different social angles surrounding the trial.


However, as the trial unfolded, it was clear that both Depp and Heard appeared to have exhibited cruel, abusive, manipulative and inexcusable behaviours. In the end, the jury found both Depp and Heard liable for defaming each other and it was the intent of malice (and evidence supporting this) that was the basis of the ruling.


Britney Spears is mobbed by fans and the paparazzi in Beverly Hills, November 2007 © Shutterstock

The Wrongful Weaponisation of Mental Health Conditions


Johnny Depp and Amber Heard have had a tumultuous relationship, to say the least. Six years ago, during the very early stages of their divorce, Heard filed and secured a domestic restraining order against Depp, disclosing experiences of emotional, verbal, and physical abuse, which Depp denied. The trial earlier this year was the second lawsuit between Depp and Heard involving the sensitive topic of intimate partner violence, defined as ‘any behaviour within an intimate relationship that causes physical, psychological or sexual harm to those in the relationship’ by the World Health Organisation.


When investigating such delicate allegations, it is logical to gain a clearer, more whole picture of which factors, what evidence, might influence the verdict.


Dr. Shannon Curry, a clinical and forensic psychologist hired by Depp’s legal team, provided a testimony where Heard’s mental health was the central topic of discussion, including the questioning of Dr. Curry’s intentions by Heard’s attorney, Elaine Bredehoft, during a cross-examination. Dr. Curry testified that “the result of Ms. Heard’s evaluation supported two diagnoses: borderline personality disorder and histrionic personality disorder”, following multiple tests where Heard’s scores were consistent with the diagnoses and identification of evidence of those diagnoses in Heard’s records and self-report.


Dr. Curry also determined a number of characteristics that Amber Heard showed through test results: ‘tending to have inner hostility & rage, externalization of blame and can often be very judgmental of others while remaining self-righteous.’ Other mental health conditions discussed were post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) (as testified by Dr. Dawn Hughes, Heard’s clinical psychologist), anxiety and emotional reactivity. The psychiatric analysis and the subsequent diagnoses were relevant to the trial, as these personality disorders may have skewed Amber Heard’s own perception of events.


Dr. Curry’s testimony spurred an avalanche of harrowing headlines, highlighting Amber Heard’s diagnoses.


Definitions:

“In general, someone with a personality disorder will differ significantly from an average person in terms of how he or she thinks, perceives, feels or relates to others.” — NHS
“Borderline personality disorder is a mental illness that severely impacts a person’s ability to regulate their emotions. This loss of emotional control can increase impulsivity, affect how a person feels about themselves, and negatively impact their relationships with others. Effective treatments are available to manage the symptoms of borderline personality disorder.” — National Institute of Mental Health
“A histrionic personality disorder, or commonly known as a dramatic personality disorder, is a psychiatric disorder distinguished by a pattern of exaggerated emotionality and attention-seeking behaviors” — StatPearls Publishing

IrynaDanyliuk/Getty Images

Personality disorders are one of the most stigmatised, misunderstood mental health conditions, due to low public knowledge and misperception of symptoms as poor behaviour. There are also potential co-occurring disorders to consider, such as PTSD, which makes the diagnosis and treatment of personality disorders much more difficult. It is also important to mention that the exact cause of personality disorders is unclear, but research suggests a combination of factors, including genetics and environmental influences, such as experiencing abuse during childhood.


Being diagnosed with a personality disorder, or any mental health condition for that matter, doesn’t absolve somebody of abuse, and abusiveness is not inherently a symptom of a personality disorder.

The media presented a deeply damaging rhetoric, using Amber Heard’s mental health diagnoses as a weapon, a justification, a reason to explain Heard’s unacceptable behaviour which came to light during the trial. This approach only perpetuates the stigma surrounding personality disorders. It furthers the stereotype that those diagnosed with personality disorders or mental health conditions are innately abusive, which is very far from the truth. Clickbait titles and clout-chasing angles have been shown to be highly influential, despite their often sensationalist nature.


The impacts of clickbait titles and damaging narratives spun by the media are definite and cannot be ignored. It stings that this comes following the pandemic and the subsequent greater acknowledgement, awareness and understanding of mental illnesses. We desperately need to re-examine the way we present mental health in the media, regardless of social status or fame, to destigmatise personality disorders and increase mental health literacy amonst the public.


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