Amber Heard v. Johnny Depp Trial Raises Question: Is Histrionic Personality Disorder a Disability?

The recent defamation trial between former Hollywood couple Amber Heard and Johnny Depp generated high profile headlines, as well as a great deal of online controversy. While the discourse around Depp’s $50 million lawsuit was, and is, quite contentious, the trial did manage to raise several complicated legal questions. One that stands out in particular is Heard’s evaluation and diagnosis of a little understood psychological condition: Histrionic Personality Disorder.

Histrionic personality disorder (HPD) is defined as a mental health condition marked by intense, volatile emotional states as well as a distorted self-image. The term “histrionic” refers to behaviour that is overly theatrical, or melodramatic, and according to the Cleveland Clinic this disorder tends to be diagnosed more often in women. Persons experiencing histrionic personality disorder will often find their self esteem tied quite closely to approval from other people, as opposed to coming from an inherent feeling of self-worth.

Individuals with HPD will often be described as having a consistent and overriding desire to be noticed, and will often act out or behave erratically to bring attention to themselves. People with histrionic personality disorder will generally have little awareness that their behaviour or way of thinking is problematic. Psychiatric professionals remind us that HPD is a serious disorder, and that the label should not be used unless one has been extensively evaluated by a licensed mental health expert.

During the trial, Depp’s legal team presented testimony from clinical and forensic psychologist Shannon Curry, PsyD. Curry carried out an extensive psychological evaluation of Amber Heard, meeting with and observing her for 12 hours. From this evaluation, Curry testified in court that Heard experiences histrionic personality disorder, as well as the often-related borderline personality disorder. It is worth noting that Heard herself rejects this diagnosis, instead insisting that she experiences post traumatic stress disorder.

As histrionic personality disorder – a fairly uncommon mental health diagnosis – was discussed in tabloid coverage of the trial, many found themselves looking for information on how it is diagnosed, treated, and how HPD could affect disability claims and benefits. Canada’s federal government does classify histrionic personality disorder as a disability, as well as several other personality disorders (including antisocial, dependant, and obsessive compulsive). As well, disability support for HPD is offered under the Canadian Disability Tax Credit.

Histrionic personality disorder is a psychiatric disorder, though regarding disability claims the actual condition or diagnosis is often less important than having symptoms that make it so that you cannot work. Due to the fact that serious mental health conditions are often stigmatised in workplaces, disability benefits/claims can frequently end up denied by insurance companies and employers as a result.

One aspect of histrionic personality disorder that may impact long or short term disability insurance claims is the relative rarity of the diagnosis. Researchers estimate that less than 1% of the general population experiences unique medical conditions like histrionic personality disorder.

Personality disorders, including HPD, are among the least understood mental health conditions, which makes obtaining objective proof difficult. Some factors that have been shown to influence histrionic or other personality disorders include genetics, childhood trauma, or overly-indulgent parenting styles. While individuals with histrionic personality disorder are typically unlikely to seek out medical treatment, research has shown that several different types of talk therapy can have a positive result, namely group therapy, psychodynamic psychotherapy, or cognitive-behavioural therapy (CBT).

Though the Amber Heard v. Johnny Depp trial remains a lightning rod for online debate, hopefully the details of the case can lead to a broader, informed, and responsible discussion of mental health issues.

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