Me was diagnosed with BPD (borderline personality disorder) about three years ago. I had a particularly unusual outburst with a family member and finally decided to go back to my GP, who referred me to a psychiatrist. He saw me for only two sessions before diagnosing me.
As many BPD patients feel when they first receive a diagnosis, there is a sense of relief that there is a name for how you feel, a concrete term that you can point to. However, once my emotions settled down, I felt different. I was hesitant to mention my diagnosis to my family or employer because, let’s face it, the phrase “emotionally unstable” doesn’t inspire confidence in most colleagues and family members. The description of me as borderline paints a very specific and misleading picture that I am inherently dangerous, but things need to be clarified regarding the reality of BPD for most people.
This week, Amber Heard received a diagnosis of BPD along with histrionic personality disorder from Dr. Shannon Curry, who was hired by Johnny Depp’s legal team. The diagnosis is part of the ongoing libel trial between Depp and Heard that began on April 11. Depp argues that Heard defamed him when she wrote an article published in Washington Post in 2018 titled “I spoke up against sexual violence — and faced our culture’s wrath. That has to change” (“I spoke out against sexual violence and faced the wrath of our culture. That has to change.”) Depp was not mentioned by name in the article.
BPD is the most commonly recognized personality disorder. There are nine symptoms in total, and five must be met to have a diagnosis of BPD; These include impulsive behaviors (such as substance abuse), self-harm, chronic emotional emptiness, intense fears of abandonment, and unstable relationships. About 75 percent of people with BPD make at least one suicide attempt in their lifetime, and up to 10 percent of people with BPD die by suicide.
Curry considers Heard to be “smug,” “judgmental” and angry, describing her as someone who alternates between her “princess and victim” roles. I am not a psychologist, but I use my lived experience to provide training to many mental health professionals. By Curry’s own admission, her remarks “are not fact.” Rather, “the scores [de Heard] were consistent with those of other people who had obtained these scores […] [con] these specific traits.
I am not the first to question the terminology of personality disorders, the possible biases in diagnosis and how the social context is not sufficiently taken into account. So when Curry presented this diagnosis as part of the case being built in the libel trial against Heard, and which seemed to attribute Heard’s alleged antagonism to her BPD, the grounds for this are flimsy at best. , particularly as BPD is often misdiagnosed.
Additionally, these labels are assigned to a suspected family abuse survivor in an attempt to discredit her claims. The US trial resembles a similar defamation case brought by Depp in the UK against the newspaper. The Sun in 2020. In November of that year, a judge found that the newspaper’s description of Depp as a “wife beater” was “substantially true.”
Research has also shown that there is a strong correlation between trauma and BPD, so I would think this, and the sensitive nature of the case, would prompt a more compassionate discussion of the diagnosis.
Perhaps it is the language used that should be reconsidered. Many mental health interventions now use an alternative term, Complex Emotional Needs, which does not imply, as “personality disorder” does, that there is something inherently wrong with someone. With BPD, this negativity is felt even more intensely when its other term is considered: emotional instability disorder.
Curry spoke consistently in court in his testimony about the use of scales in diagnosis, describing that mental health problems generally have genetic, neurological, and environmental components. So where on the scale were Heard’s alleged outbursts? To me, these are not characteristic of a specific personality disorder, but rather fallibility and flaws in human behavior. His alleged actions must be attributed to these reasons, not related to a diagnosis that will later become a weapon.
When these conversations about complex psychological issues come out into the open, they become oversimplified and risk smearing many others with the same brush. Not to mention blaming someone who, in this case, has claimed to be a victim of abuse. It sets a precedent for future cases involving people with BPD, whose diagnoses may be used against them in a court of law.
So instead of pathologizing the supposed actions of a single individual and throwing everyone with BPD under the proverbial bus in the process, I suggest normalizing these conversations, in public, in workplaces, and at home. Regardless of the outcome of this trial, we must listen to people with BPD. It’s not easy to live with, but it’s also not what defines me or others who’ve been diagnosed, and it certainly shouldn’t be a defense in a family abuse lawsuit.