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Here are 3 takeaways on mental health from the Johnny Depp vs Amber Heard trial

Like millions around the world, I found myself captivated by the recent Johnny Depp versus Amber Heard defamation trial that concluded with Mr Depp winning all three of his defamation claims and Ms Heard winning one out of her three counterclaims.
Here are 3 takeaways on mental health from the Johnny Depp vs Amber Heard trial
The Depp v Heard case reached far beyond the shores of the United States, setting social media and the internet ablaze with memes, commentaries, parodies and speculation.

Like millions around the world, I found myself captivated by the recent Johnny Depp versus Amber Heard defamation trial that concluded with Mr Depp winning all three of his defamation claims and Ms Heard winning one out of her three counterclaims.

As the trial was publicly broadcast, the Depp v Heard case reached far beyond the shores of the United States, setting social media and the internet ablaze with memes, commentaries, parodies and speculation.

Given the nature of defamation and the claims being challenged, a central aspect of the trial was the question: Who could we believe to be telling the truth? In presenting their cases, both sides needed to demonstrate who was more credible through their evidence and witnesses.

As a mental health researcher, I was quite perturbed by how both camps employed arguments to discredit the other’s credibility that seemed to weaponise and revolve around various mental health and substance abuse conditions.

For example, Mr Depp’s regular drug/alcohol use and certain personality traits were brought up throughout the trial in what seemed to be attempts to link them to potential aggressive or abusive behaviours that were being discussed.

On the other hand, Ms Heard’s purported personality disorders and post-traumatic stress disorder were raised to seemingly question the accuracy of her testimony.

To be clear, the point of this commentary is not to critique the experts involved nor discuss their mental health and substance abuse conditions.

While I can understand why both sides felt the need to do so, I fear the fall-out from using these conditions in such a manner beyond the scope of this trial and its impact on people experiencing the same conditions as those brought up during the trial.

First, a mental health or substance abuse condition does not result in a fixed behavior or thought pattern.

Similarly, diagnosing any of these conditions does not mean we can predict how a person would behave or think in a particular future situation.

It is important to remember that everyone who experiences a mental health or substance abuse condition is entirely unique. For example, two people diagnosed with borderline or histrionic personality disorder or who may experience substance abuse challenges, as brought up during the trial, can have drastically different symptoms, experiences and outcomes.

Such categorising and grouping of individuals can lead to stereotypes about them that may lead to negative beliefs about people associated with the group, resulting in stigma forming towards this group.

So let us see the trial for what it is, an individual case, and try not to associate the conditions mentioned with the behaviours discussed.

Secondly, having certain traits, risk factors, behaviours or thoughts does not necessarily mean that an individual has a mental health or substance abuse condition.

With so much discussion during the trial on the assessment, testing, and diagnostic criteria for various mental health and substance abuse conditions, it can be tempting to start noticing and diagnosing people around us who portray certain behaviours or say certain things.

However, we should try to refrain from doing so as it can cause unfair aspersions to be cast on them.

Making any formal diagnosis of a mental health or substance use condition is a much more complex process than what was seen publicly during the trial.

In fact, this salient point was also acknowledged, but may have been missed as it was a fleeting one, by both sides' expert witnesses.

Moreover, diagnoses are limited by the information available to the person making them and can change to accommodate new knowledge that surfaces. 

Lastly, perhaps most importantly, the two points above bring up a crucial differentiation required between causation and correlation, a similar point that was brought up in the trial when discussing risk factors of abuse.

Humans are complex beings, and identifying causal factors for mental health and substance abuse conditions is near impossible.

Hence, it is widely accepted that they are most likely caused by a combination of biological, psychological and social factors.

But as to the exact mix, there are no guarantees.

This inability to accurately pinpoint causality is why the next best factor which professionals often rely upon in making predictions or conceptualising early interventions are risk factors associated with mental health or substance abuse conditions.

For example, some common risk factors include stressful life events such as a divorce, death of a loved one or unemployment; family history of mental health issues; childhood trauma; social isolation; lower socioeconomic status, to name a few.

But risk factors do not provide adequate explanations for why someone has mental health or substance use conditions or not. They tell you only whether a statistical relationship (correlation) exists between a factor and a mental health or substance abuse condition. 

Such correlations can exist between two completely non-related factors. 

Taken together, we need to see the Depp vs Heard trial for what it is, a tale of two people facing many life and relationship challenges who ended up in a relationship that failed.

Sadly, the mental health field was dragged into this situation, and I sincerely hope the main message people take away regarding mental health and substance abuse conditions is how complex they can be.


ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Jonathan Kuek is a doctoral candidate and mental health researcher at the University of Sydney, specialising in recovery approaches to the management and understanding of mental health conditions. He is also the co-founder of The Total Wellness Initiative Singapore, which seeks to encourage people to be more proactive with their well-being. These are his own views.

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Amber Heard Johnny Depp trial court mental health

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