In Heard–Depp defamation trial, the stigma of borderline personality disorder looms large

Therapists weigh in on one psychologist's testimony, and stigma of the BPD diagnosis in women

By Nicole Karlis

Senior Writer

Published May 2, 2022 5:29PM (EDT)

US actress Amber Heard looks over he shoulder during the 50 million US dollars Depp vs Heard defamation trial at the Fairfax County Circuit Court in Fairfax, Virginia,on April 14, 2022. (SHAWN THEW/POOL/AFP via Getty Images)
US actress Amber Heard looks over he shoulder during the 50 million US dollars Depp vs Heard defamation trial at the Fairfax County Circuit Court in Fairfax, Virginia,on April 14, 2022. (SHAWN THEW/POOL/AFP via Getty Images)

Last week, a forensic psychologist named Shannon Curry testified at the Johnny Depp-Amber Heard defamation trial, stating that she believes Amber Heard has borderline personality disorder and histrionic personality disorder. In her testimony, Curry explained the opinion derived from assessing Heard directly for 12 hours, in addition to reviewing case documents, medical documents and prior mental health records.

"Her scores were consistent with other people who had obtained these scores who have been shown through many, many studies to have these very specific traits," Curry said.

RELATED: Therapists weigh in on Depp-Heard trial

The testimony comes as both side's lawyers try to portray both Heard or Depp as the aggressor in their marriage. The civil trial concerns Depp suing Heard for $50 million over defamation over an essay she wrote for The Washington Post in 2018. In the essay, Heard said she had become the "public figure representing domestic abuse." Heard wrote, in the essay, that she wanted to "ensure that women who come forward to talk about violence receive more support." While Depp was never named directly in the essay, his attorneys argue it indirectly refers to the allegations she made against him during their divorce.

Want more health and science stories in your inbox? Subscribe to Salon's weekly newsletter The Vulgar Scientist.

Both borderline personality disorder (BPD) and histrionic personality disorder (HPD) are, as the names describe, personality disorders. As Curry explained in her testimony, they are different from mood disorders like depression or bipolar disorder. According to the American Psychiatric Association's Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders — considered the "bible" for classifying and diagnosing mental disorders — borderline personality disorder is "a pervasive pattern of instability of interpersonal relationships, self-image, and affects, and marked impulsivity, beginning in early adulthood and present in a variety of contexts"; whereas histrionic personality disorder is characterized "by individuals who are flamboyant, seek attention, and demonstrate an excessive emotionality."

In the internet age, in which celebrities' mental health is endlessly debated in social media forums, charging someone with having BPD is sometimes used as a means of discrediting them, regardless of whether the diagnosis is true. The reason is because those with BPD are sometimes predisposed to lying, though they may not believe that what they say is a lie; and because those with BPD are sometimes obsessed with their own victimhood to the point that they will say anything if it means perpetuating that narrative. "People with BPD are fully convinced their skewed feelings and beliefs — be they positive or negative — are unquestionably true," write Paul T. Mason and Randi Kreger in "Walking on Eggshells," one of the most popular and most-cited books on BPD relationships. 

But some people who have borderline personality disorder, as well as many mental health experts, are wary of "weaponizing" it, as Mina Hadi wrote in The Independent last week in an op-ed titled "I have Borderline Personality Disorder – it shouldn't be weaponised against Amber Heard." "The description of me as borderline paints a specific, misleading picture of me being inherently dangerous," Hadi writes, adding that she is "not the first to dispute the terminology of personality disorders, potential biases in diagnosis and how it doesn't take social context into account enough."

Notably, both personality disorders appear to be more common in women, raising the question as to whether they are stigmatized among women as a result. 

During her testimony, Curry was asked if women "are tagged with a diagnosis of borderline personality disorder." Curry disagreed, stating it was "more prevalent in women." According to a paper published in the Canadian Medical Association Journal, an estimated 70 percent of women account for BPD diagnoses in a clinical setting; HPD is only estimated to affect 1 percent of the population, but once again, is more often diagnosed in women.

"In regard to histrionic personality disorder, women account for about 65 percent of the diagnoses," Dr. Carla Marie Manly, a clinical psychologist and author of "Joy From Fear," told Salon via email. "It is believed by some that histrionic personality disorder occurs equally in male and female populations but that diagnostic bias skews the prevalence rates."

Therapists tell Salon both diagnoses are often stigmatized in women.

"Borderline personality disorder is diagnosed most in women and is undoubtedly stigmatized," Saba Harouni Lurie, a licensed marriage and family therapist and founder of Take Root Therapy, told Salon via email. "Even though there are currently treatments that have shown to be effective in treating borderline personality disorder, we still imbue such symptomology to those with these diagnoses that it becomes impossible to see them as whole, functional individuals."

Lurie added that HPD also "carried significant stigma."

"If it's proven that Amber Heard did abuse Johnny, it's not because she has borderline personality disorder, it's because she has abusive tendencies," Nickerson said.

"Additionally, research suggests that borderline personality disorder has a strong relationship with adverse childhood experiences, and there may also be a relationship between histrionic personality disorder and adverse childhood experiences," Lurie said. "A diagnosis can miss the mark by not offering a complete picture of a person, including what may have caused and what may exacerbate their symptoms."

Kathy Nickerson, a licensed clinical psychologist and nationally recognized relationship expert, agreed that BPD is "highly stigmatized."

"Many people do not realize that personality disorders also exist on a spectrum, where not everyone exhibits the same symptoms in the same way," Nickerson said, noting that not everyone with a personality disorder is "abusive." "If it's proven that Amber Heard did abuse Johnny, it's not because she has borderline personality disorder, it's because she has abusive tendencies," Nickerson said.

Therapists also say these are complex disorders that don't necessarily factor in a person's past traumas or environmental factors. Angela Amias, a couples therapist and co-founder of Alchemy of Love, told Salon both disorders are "typically rooted in trauma."

"So those are labels that are put on someone's behavior, but it's not actually speaking to the root of where that is coming from, in somebody's traumatic reactions to current situations that are based on their past experiences," Amias said. "I don't think they're helpful labels."

In her testimony, when asked if trauma can cause either disorders, Curry said "no."

"We know that there are people who have borderline personality disorder who have sustained childhood trauma, there also people who have borderline personality disorder who have had no childhood trauma," Curry said. "So like most personality disorders, and really like most mental health issues in general, there seems to be both a biological component."

Curry added that research also suggests there can be a "genetic component" and a "neurological component."

"And then there is also possibly an environmental component triggering those genetic markers," Curry said.

The Johnny Depp-Amber Heard defamation trial continues today.

Read more on trauma and mental health: 

By Nicole Karlis

Nicole Karlis is a senior writer at Salon, specializing in health and science. Tweet her @nicolekarlis.

MORE FROM Nicole Karlis

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Borderline Personality Disorder Depp-heard Trial Mental Health Reporting Sexism