The Johnny Depp vs. Amber Heard Trial Is Stigmatising People with Personality Disorders, and It’s the Last Thing We Need

BY DAYNA LATHAM

The Johnny Depp vs. Amber Heard trial has been incredibly triggering for many folks - especially those of us with personality disorder (PD) diagnoses. Not only do Heard and Depp both have Personality Disorders (Borderline and Histrionic respectively, with Heard being controversially labelled with both BPD and HPD by a forensic psychiatrist that Depp’s legal team hired themselves), but their mental state has become intrinsic to the spectacle - interestingly, all of it unfolding during Mental Health Awareness Month.

This in turn is prompting some hideous narrations in both traditional and social media that further stigmatise, and overlook, the structural discrimination and abuse faced by many of us. The infamous hashtag ‘AmberHeardIsaPsychopath’ is currently trending on Twitter (conflating two polar opposite PDs) and an onslaught of personal threats across social media are being directed at her. The vast majority of this is inexcusable, even if she were actually proven guilty of every single claim made in that courtroom.

In the mental health awareness movement, those with PD diagnoses are often left behind, and many people are scared of us, including doctors and therapists. I’ve had therapists that refused to see me once I was diagnosed with Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD), and I have often faced added discrimination by medical professionals treating unrelated medical issues, such as endometriosis, tendon repair surgery or physiotherapy. I decided to speak to several other people with BPD to establish if my thoughts on this stigma were common.

Beth Campbell, 24, who identifies as female, told me that during this trial, she’s heard more slurs and toxic takes on BPD than ever before. Like many others, Beth has been avoiding social media posts and news stories about the trial. She explained: “The worst part is hearing people you love and respect dehumanise somebody with your exact condition, and wondering ‘if they think that of her, what do they think of me?’ It’s like some 21st century witch trial. I just want to go and live in the woods until this all blows over!”

James Jackson, 21, who identifies as male, also shared with me: “Watching the trial is brutal but I can’t look away. It’s definitely an act of self harm. Honestly, I’d not really considered that I may be treated differently to women with the same condition, but it is obvious now. There seems to be almost no public empathy for her.”

Men are less likely to be diagnosed, yet more likely to receive treatment and general understanding post-diagnosis. An ‘overly emotional’ man is seen as more surprising, and garners more endearment - Johnny Depp is proof of this. His PD has been mentioned to nowhere near to a comparable extent. The hypomania and prolific slur usage of his fan base also lends itself as evidence to this theory.

One of the biggest issues in this trial is the dichotomy of victim and abuser - good and bad. When complex trauma exists on both sides, it is possible that the couple were mutually abusive and co-dependent, and that neither of their stories are entirely representative.

Many women with PDs are reliant on a more ‘reputable’, less pathologised partner when they’re in a relationship, giving way to an inherent power imbalance. We’re currently seeing this power imbalance play out in the way people are picking sides, and how they’re choosing to ‘support’ them - through ostracisation and abuse, whether verbal or physical, with or without intent.

If social anxiety and depression are the poster children of mental health awareness, then personality disorders are the elephant in the room.

Historically, the justice system has been rigged against neurodivergent folks, who are disproportionately institutionalised - locked in jails or psych wards. This has been fairly well documented, especially post-Black Lives Matter protests. But according to NHS data, published in Sept 2021, shows that 60-70% of prisoners have a personality disorder, as do around 50% of offenders under probation services. 50% of the probation caseload, based on a limited NHS study published in 2015, is also PD patients. Recidivism rates for PD patients are higher too. Admittedly, data on this is scarce.

However, the NHS report went on to say that understanding the extent of the need for mental healthcare was clouded by a lack of a clear understanding of the ‘complex needs’ of prisoners. And in particular, those diagnosed with BPD (a group that has a 3:1 female to male gender ratio, according to the National Library of Medicine) don’t receive adequate care to improve. Folks with PDs are also often infantilised, and not given the same level of consent over their treatment plans as neurotypicals.

BPD is vastly overrepresented in prison - with approximately 30% of prisoners in the US meeting the criteria. This has remained stable since at least 1996 - which is staggering, considering that personality disorders generally only affect 5-10% of the population, with BPD only estimated to affect 1% of people. BPD stigma is in fact one of the most well documented causes of acute mental health crises, such as a 2018 report by the Mental Welfare Commission Scotland already warning us of the devastating consequences of this stigma on people’s mental health.

Folks with PDs aren’t just more likely to commit crime though, we’re also more likely to be victims of it too. Especially women. Abuse is generally more common, and often contributes to the formation of PDs. Women and femmes with BPD face a very specific type of misogyny and sanism - commonly perceived as the shrill, overly emotional, clingy, manipulative and toxic female character.

I had successfully gaslit myself for years, until this trial, telling myself that this ‘stigma’ I experienced was simply in my head. And sure, some of it may be, but the role of stigmas on the lived experience of people who share PD diagnoses has been increasingly impossible to ignore. And in the very public arena of the Johnny Depp vs. Amber Heard trial, people with PD need to be protected too.