The highly publicised trial between Johnny Depp and Amber Heard — as it clogs social media feeds and headlines around the world — will be the first time many people will have heard of a mental health condition called borderline personality disorder.
They heard about it like this. As part of Depp’s defence, an expert witness testified that in the course of two sessions, she had diagnosed Heard with two “overlapping” disorders. Borderline personality disorder, and the rarer histrionic personality disorder.
On the stand, the expert witness explained in a matter-of-fact way what her diagnosis meant. Sufferers of these conditions, she said, can show “a lot of cruelty”, are “very concerned with their image”, play “a victim or princess role” to get what they want, can be “overly flirtatious” and can act in “an overly girly way” to “avoid getting negative feedback or criticism”.
They show “extreme discomfort with not being the centre of attention” and will “make up stories” to try to regain it. They are “full of rage”, which can “explode out at times”. They are compulsive liars to the extent they often cannot tell whether they are lying or not. In other words, a mental health diagnosis was used to paint Heard as utterly unreliable: someone who was by nature a cruel, raging liar. Now, this may or may not turn out to be an accurate assessment of Heard’s character. But the idea that someone’s mental health can be used against them in a trial is a very big problem.
First, Heard’s diagnosis will simply add to the stigma people with these mental health condition already face. The pejorative terms used in the trial — the tendency to “play a princess role” for example — are absent from formal definitions of these two personality disorder. The point of mentioning your opponent’s disorder in a trial is to draw a link between mental health and bad or dangerous behaviour. That is the very link mental health advocates have been trying to break for decades. Second, it gives complainants an incentive for diagnosing their opponents, which means people will be unnecessarily slapped with a label. There is no decisive test for borderline personality disorder — the diagnosis is made through questionnaires and interviews, which means it is easy to misdiagnose.
Third, and perhaps most importantly, it erects a huge barrier to justice for those with personality disorders — people who are already more vulnerable to abuse than average. How can you testify against an abuser if your mental health paints you as inherently unreliable?
There are many ways to establish character and motive without using psychologists’ testimony. (You can use their past behaviour, for one). Mental health diagnoses have a long and chequered history of being used to discredit people as witnesses to their own trauma. The bar for using them in a courtroom, especially in very public trials, should be far higher.
In other news...
Private schools have long worried that they are in danger of “losing” Oxbridge places to pupils from state schools. Yesterday Cambridge’s vice chancellor seemed to confirm these fears when he said the university might introduce figures on grammar school recruitment and free school meal eligibility. Cue headlines spelling doom for private pupils.
But that puts it the wrong way round. State schools educate 93 per cent of children. But their pupils made up just 72 per cent of Cambridge’s intake last September.
There’s a blind spot with social mobility. We like the idea of people moving up the ladder, but get uncomfortable at the idea of others moving down. But one entails the other. If you’re in favour of helping state school pupils in, you’re in favour of keeping private ones out.