Trigger Warning: Domestic Abuse, Mental Health

According to the press: Johnny Depp is a drug addict and Amber Heard has a mental health disorder that makes her hysterically violent or deserving of pity, depending on who you ask. 

For the past month, we’ve been watching the drama unfold in the defamation lawsuit between Johnny Depp and Amber Heard. Between the lies, the accusations, and the frankly horrifying stories from the trial, it’s hard to make sense of what really happened. In fact, it leads to more questions than it does answers, but I’m not here to make a judgment on who’s right and who’s wrong. I’m here to talk about how mental health was weaponized in this trial and the negative implications it has for those with mental illnesses.

To Diagnose or Not to Diagnose?

If you haven’t been keeping up with the trial, there has been a lot of discussion on both sides of the case about both Heard and Depp’s mental stability throughout the course of their relationship. Heard was subject to two different psychiatric evaluations by Dr Dawn Hughes and Dr Shannon Curry, who both came to very different conclusions about the nature of her mental wellbeing. Dr Hughes insisted that Heard exhibited trademark symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD); Dr Curry stated that she believes Heard has borderline personality disorder (BPD) and histrionic personality disorder. Meanwhile, Dr David Spiegel, Heard’s psychiatrist, asserted that he believes Depp was using drugs and alcohol and had a chronic substance abuse problem that contributed to his abusive behavior.

But let’s stop there for a moment and ask why this was even part of the trial in the first place? Neither Heard nor Depp had been medically diagnosed with any mental health conditions before the beginning of the trial, and yet their mental states were used as key evidence in the justification and defense of their respective cases. 

The performative nature of using mental illness as both a defense and a weapon perpetuates the idea that there are “acceptable” and “unacceptable” mental health disorders. For Amber Heard, Dr Hughes’ PTSD diagnosis gives the impression that she was traumatized by Johnny Depp. She becomes a strong survivor of domestic abuse, deserving our sympathy and pity. Conversely, we perceive conditions like BPD, bipolar disorder, and other personality disorders as dangerous and unpredictable. Whether it was accurate or not, Dr Curry’s diagnosis paints Heard as the perpetrator of violence, rather than the victim. Depp’s legal team, there was a lot to gain from getting the jury to perceive her as such. 

This wasn’t a one-way street either. Heard’s legal team played the same card, using Depp’s ongoing struggle with substance abuse to vilify him as a domestic abuser. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, Substance Use Disorder (SUD) is a form of mental illness that results in “a person’s inability to control their use of substances such as legal or illegal drugs, alcohol, or medications.” But again, Depp had no previous diagnosis of any mental illness, nor was he diagnosed during the trial. Not only did they use his mental health against him, but they also created a narrative that condemns addicts to be hopeless social pariahs who will never truly rise above their vices in the public eye. Are we left to conclude that if Johnny Depp can’t be helped, then no one can?

The Butterfly Effect

The improvement of mental health awareness is imperative for societal progression, but this weaponizing of mental illness creates a social butterfly effect for those of us who have been diagnosed with these “unacceptable” disorders. The high-profile scrutiny of mental health in this trial puts at risk the jobs, relationships, and personal wellbeing of neurodivergent people, myself included. 

I was diagnosed with bipolar II disorder a few years ago and it turned my life upside down, but it allowed me to seek the help I needed to live life in a healthy and productive fashion. Most days, I’m quite comfortable being honest about my condition and how it affects me. In many ways, it helps people see inside my world and have more empathy for me, and I’m not alone in this existence either. 

But when Amber Heard was diagnosed with BPD, it sent a message to the public: people with BPD throw glass bottles at their partners and are a threat to society. When disorders are linked to actions in that way, it reinforces the stigma around mental health and creates a cycle of shame and silencing. Many people receive these diagnoses and are perfectly functional human beings. But with this trial fresh in people’s minds, there arises the desire to hide our truth for fear of being seen as unstable or dangerous. That’s a big step backwards from the progress we’ve seen for mental health awareness in the past few decades.

We as a society have slowly begun to disassemble the stigma around mental health. Between the many national organizations dedicated to the investigation and treatment of mental illness and the myriad social media influencers bringing awareness to the prevalence of many different disorders, a lot of work has been done by countless individuals to bring light to the reality and prevalence of the issue. Even the month of May has been nationally recognized as Mental Health Awareness month, which becomes slightly ironic given that the trial happened in May. 

For me, it’s not about who won. It’s that this lawsuit not only highlighted the performative nature of our legal system but also stands as a threat to the everyday experiences of people with mental illnesses. Both sides relied on these stereotypes and stigma to get the result they wanted, and nothing more.

Righting Our Course

So, what do we do moving forward in a world where this stigma still exists in its many forms? We tell the other side of the story. We prove that a diagnosis is not a death sentence. It is not dangerous, nor is it a weapon to be used for personal gain. It is just one card in the hand that life dealt us, and we can either fold or play on. 

For me, playing on starts with the individual work, because you can’t help anyone else if you can’t help yourself, and that applies to everyone. Mental illness is not the problem, it’s our inability to emotionally regulate that is the true hazard to our mental health. Every person has a different life story and different sources of emotional stress that impede our day-to-day existence.  No matter who you are, stress can become a trigger for all sorts of unwanted behaviors and thought patterns. Whether you’re an A-list celebrity or a college student like me, we need to pay attention to our emotional well-being first and foremost, because it’s when we don’t that we start doing things we’ll regret later. 

That’s what we do here at rREST, we give people the tools they need to find peace with their emotions, rather than be at war with them. I still have bipolar disorder, but there is nothing more reassuring than knowing that having a depressive or manic episode doesn’t mean self-sabotage anymore. In a weird way, I’m stable in my instability. I can acknowledge where I’m at without guilt or shame and know that this too, shall pass. 

If you’re looking for new ways to make friends with your brain, you can schedule a complimentary consultation with rREST