What is Histrionic Personality Disorder? What psychologist said about Amber Heard in Johnny Depp trial

Forensic psychologist Dr Shannon Curry told the court that Amber Heard suffers from two personality disorders, including borderline personality disorder

A forensic psychologist has said that Amber Heard displays signs of a personality disorder which involves “extreme effort to be the centre of attention” as the defamation lawsuit between the actress and her ex-husband Johnny Depp continues in the US.

Depp concluded his testimony for the trial on Monday (25 April), stating that he had been a victim of domestic abuse at the hands of Heard.

He is suing Heard for libel over a 2018 article she wrote in The Washington Post, which his lawyers say falsely implies that Depp physically and sexually abused her.

What did the psychologist say about Amber Heard?

Forensic psychologist Dr Shannon Curry said in court that Heard suffered from borderline personality disorder (BPD) and histrionic personality disorder (HPD), which can involve “manipulation tactics to try and get their needs met”.

Dr Curry also said that Heard had not suffered from post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), as the actress has claimed, from her relationship with Depp.

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Giving evidence at the trial on Tuesday, Dr Curry discussed her observations from clinical interviews she had conducted with Heard, and said they were consistent with the disorders.

Clinical and forensic psychologist Dr. Shannon Curry testifies in the courtroom at the Fairfax County Circuit Courthouse (Photo by BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/POOL/AFP via Getty Images)

She said: “[There is] a tendency to be very self-righteous but to also deny that self-righteousness and to judge others critically against these high standards.

“They could use manipulation tactics to try and get their needs met, very needy of attention, approval, acceptance.

“They tend to distance people who are close to them. Initially they may seem very charming. They’re very socially sophisticated actually.”

Dr Curry added that the instability of a borderline personality disorder can be driven by a “terror of abandonment”.

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“When someone is afraid of being abandoned by their partner or by anyone else…they will make desperate attempts to prevent that from happening,” she said.

Amber Heard listening to an audio recording of she and Johnny Depp arguing (Photo by JIM LO SCALZO/POOL/AFP via Getty Images)

“Oftentimes their partners will try to make them happy at first and allow themselves to be a punching bag, thinking that they can somehow solve this problem…eventually it just overwhelms them.”

Dr Curry added that one of the “hallmark characteristics” of a histrionic personality disorder was “dramatic presentation” which she said Heard had demonstrated.

“When people are displaying these emotions with this personality disorder, there’s a sense of shallowness to it,” she said.

“People who are observing them will feel like it’s almost play-acting.

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“This disorder involves extreme discomfort with not being the centre of attention, extreme efforts to be the centre of attention.

Dr. Shannon Curry has said that Amber Heard displays signs consistent with two personality disorders (Photo by BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/POOL/AFP via Getty Images)

“When they feel they’re not the centre of attention you will see some strange things [like] making up stories to try and get attention [or] taking on the victim or princess role.

“Those are two roles in particular that are pretty consistent.”

In cross examination Heard’s lawyers questioned Dr Curry about her potential bias, having been hired by Depp and having had dinner and drinks with the actor and his legal team before her appointment.

Dr Curry said that this had been part of the interview process.

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What is histrionic personality disorder - is it the same as borderline personality disorder?

According to Khiron Clinics, while “many clinicians argue that both borderline personality disorder (BPD) and histrionic personality disorder (HPD) are practically the same” the two have “some key differences”.

The clinic has outlined a shortened and simplified breakdown of both disorders.

BPD:

  • Efforts to avoid real or imagined abandonment
  • Intense and unstable relationships with family
  • Impulsive behaviours
  • Unstable self-image
  • Mood swings
Amber Heard listens in the courtroom at the Fairfax County Circuit Courthouse in Fairfax, Virginia (Photo by BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/POOL/AFP via Getty Images)

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HPD:

  • Discomfort in situations where one is not centre of attention
  • Inappropriate sexually seductive/provocative behaviour
  • Rapidly shifting emotions
  • Self-dramatisation and exaggerated expressions 
  • Easily influenced by outside circumstances

“Both disorders are based on severe mood swings, impulsivity, and difficulty with relationships, which means that one disorder could easily be misdiagnosed for the other,” the clinic explains.

Mental health charity Mind also says that those with BPD may “feel consistently unstable or intense” whereas someone with HPD might “depend very heavily on being noticed, or are seeking approval so much that this affects your day-to-day living”.

Can personality disorders be treated?

While a personality disorder cannot be cured as such, there is treatment available to help tackle specific issues that occur when someone has a personality disorder.

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According to the NHS, treatment for a personality disorder usually involves talking therapy - this is where a person talks with a therapist to gain a better understanding of their thoughts, feelings and behaviours.

Amber Heard arriving at the courtroom for the defamation trial against her (Photo by BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/POOL/AFP via Getty Images)

Depending on the severity of a person’s disorder, treatment can last from months to years.

In some cases, medicine can be prescribed to someone to help treat issues associated with a personality disorder, like depression, anxiety or psychotic symptoms.

“Many people with a personality disorder recover over time. Psychological or medical treatment is often helpful, but support is sometimes all that’s needed,” the NHS says.

What has the reaction to Amber Heard’s ‘diagnosis’ been like?

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As the news of Dr Curry’s diagnosis spread on Twitter, reactions to her observations have been somewhat mixed.

Dr Jessica Taylor, a chartered psychologist with a PhD in forensic psychology and author of Sexy Psycho: How the Patriarchy Uses Women’s Trauma Against Them, has spoken out about the diagnosis on Twitter, branding it as a move to “recast” Heard from an abused woman to one that’s mentally ill.

Dr Taylor tweeted: “Well as if I needed any more evidence that this vile society will use anything to diagnose abused women as mentally ill, Amber’s case is a step by step of how to recast women as having BPD.”

She also wrote: “You realise thousands of women who have been through this exact thing will watch Amber and know exactly what it’s like to be asses by some biassed bulls**t psych and then hear how they have a personality disorder and then be discredited. Happening in UK, US, CA, NZ, AUS. Common.”

Speaking to National World, Dr Taylor said: “Amber’s case may be terrifyingly public, but there are thousands of other women who have been through this exact process in private - sat in a court for weeks, hearing themselves be described as disordered, manipulative, mentally ill and emotionally unstable.

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“It is vital that everyone understands that these diagnoses are not broadly accepted medical conditions, they are highly contested, controversial psychiatric labels. They are also, very often, and very successfully, introduced into family law cases, private law cases and even criminal law cases where a woman is reporting domestic or sexual abuse. It’s like clockwork, frankly.

Amber Heard standing as the jury leaves for a lunch break in the courtroom at the Fairfax County Circuit Courthouse (Photo by STEVE HELBER/POOL/AFP via Getty Images)

“Most people believe that psychiatric categories such as personality disorders are scientifically proven, that they can be reliably diagnosed and tested, and that psychologists in these cases are objective assessors of a physical mental disorder. Unfortunately, none of these beliefs are accurate.

“Borderline personality disorder is widely known in psychology and critical psychiatry as a ‘junk diagnosis’ - and I haven’t heard anyone use the term ‘histrionic personality disorder’ unironically in years, given that it is seen as a debunked disorder based purely on misogyny dating as far back as Ancient Greece.

“Histrionic personality disorder was borne out of the ‘hysteria’ diagnosis, which could only be given to women. The words ‘hysterical woman’ in the DSM-II in 1968 were changed to ‘histrionic woman’ in DSM-III in 1980, after top psychiatrists theorised that ‘histrionic women were labile, egocentric, seductive, frigid, and childish’.

“Simply put, it is outrageous that in 2022, a psychologist would testify on the stand that a woman had ‘histrionic personality disorder’ considering the wealth of evidence that it is nothing more than a made up, misogynistic label to beat women with.

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Actor Johnny Depp sits to testify in the courtroom at the Fairfax County Circuit Courthouse in Fairfax, Virginia, April 25, 2022 (Photo by STEVE HELBER/POOL/AFP via Getty Images)

“And as controversial as this may become, the same arguments can be made for BPD. Yet another junk diagnosis thrown at women, with women at least seven times more likely to be diagnosed, and significantly more likely to be diagnosed during and after trauma or abuse – and interestingly, in bisexual women, who are overrepresented in BPD diagnosis.

“Diagnosing a woman with BPD or HPD is the go-to tactic of a legal team intent on discrediting a woman. I see it every single day. Thousands of women are going through the same thing as Amber as we speak, not knowing how to protect themselves or defend themselves from a psychiatric diagnosis they didn’t even know existed.

“You only have to look at how these diagnoses have been used against multiple high profile women to silence and control them for years to see what they are really for.

“The legal team used personality disorder to discredit a woman because they believe it positions her as insane and unbelievable. That’s the crux of this. It’s not a medical diagnosis, it’s a political label, and a well-known tactical move in a larger game of chess.

“And this tactic demonstrates that we have never truly moved on from recasting abused women as insane, deviant and disordered.”

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Amber Heard talking to her attorney in the courtroom (Photo by BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/POOL/AFP via Getty Images)

Many others took to Twitter not to defend Heard but to communicate that those with personality disorders aren’t inherently abusive and that the stigma of these disorders should not be perpetuated due to their association with Heard.

One person wrote: “In light of a psychologist announcing that a professional has diagnosed Amber Heard with bpd, can we remember that she’s not abusive because she has bpd, she’s abusive because she’s an abuser - there’s already an exhausting stigma around it, we don’t need any more grief!!!!!”

Another tweeted: “Just because Amber Heard is diagnosed with BPD and HPD does not mean people with these diagnoses are evil, are abusers, or are somehow less human. Let’s not begin perpetuating stigma - anyone and everyone can be s**tty, not just those with personality disorders.”

“Friendly reminder that Borderline Personality Disorder ≠ abusive. BPD is being thrown around a lot with #AmberHeard. Whether or not she is diagnosed with BPD I don’t know, but please don’t assume everyone with BPD is manipulative, abusive monsters as that’s simply not true,” wrote another.