On April 12, 2022, Day One of the Johnny Depp v. Amber Heard civil defamation trial began. In the days that have ensued, more than 330 million viewers from the United States, Canada, and the U.K. watched the televised trial. At the core of the trial is the issue of intimate partner violence and its aftermath. Depp and Heard have each claimed to be victims of intimate partner violence at the hands of the other.
Expert witness testimony about intimate partner violence (IPV) was proffered by two forensic psychologists, Shannon Curry, who was retained by Depp’s team, and Dawn Hughes, retained by Heard’s team. Curry diagnosed Heard with borderline and histrionic personality disorder. She said Heard “grossly exaggerated” symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and a lack of sufficient evidence to support the diagnosis. In contrast, Hughes diagnosed Heard with PTSD caused by intimate partner violence from Depp.
As this case aims to uncover the truth of the matter—whether defamation occurred to either party—it seems only fitting to uncover the truth about IPV, which is at the core of this case. As forensic psychiatrists, familiar with this area of subspecialty, we aim to debunk several of the proposed truisms regarding IPV and the role of mental health experts. Here are the truths about ten misunderstandings that may result from the trial coverage:
1. There is no psychological “test” or tool to determine the veracity of an individual’s claim of intimate partner violence. The credibility of a witness is the domain of the jury, not a mental health expert. Forensic psychiatrists and psychologists are not “lie detectors.” Forensic psychologists don’t possess special skills or expertise to determine whether Depp or Heard were victims of IPV. As a result, forensic psychiatrists or psychologists should not deviate into the domain of whether it happened or not.
2. Specialized medical experts— such as forensic pathologists or child abuse pediatricians— can determine whether a physical injury occurred in the context of a reported altercation. Unlike mental health experts, these experts study the mechanics of the injury as well as the clinical appearance of the injury to determine whether such injury is likely to have resulted from the reported act. Historical injuries are evaluated by reviewing contemporaneous medical records documenting injuries.
3. Mental health experts can offer opinions about whether an individual’s reported psychiatric symptoms are consistent with a psychiatric disorder. Mental health experts are knowledgeable about the diagnostic criteria and clinical presentations of psychiatric disorders. This knowledge is used to compare an individual’s reported experiences and then to describe to the trier of fact, whether the individual’s experience is consistent with what we know about this disorder.
4. Intimate partner violence is often bidirectional. Women have agency and can be violent too. Depending on the study, IPV perpetration rates are similar for women and men. Stereotyping women as victims and men as perpetrators undermines our progress moving away from sexism and not defining either gender by societal attitudes.
5. The only model of IPV is not that of a male intimate terrorist, who is acting to control. Situational couple violence is another major form of IPV. The research investigating women as perpetrators of IPV pales in comparison to the research on men as perpetrators. Mental health experts must take all this into account in cases of alleged women perpetrators, and use caution not to make over-statements.
6. IPV does not necessarily result in PTSD. Between one-third and three-quarters, depending on the study, of those who have experienced IPV meet criteria for PTSD. IPV can qualify as a traumatic event that results in the requisite symptoms of PTSD, but not by default. There are many factors that contribute to the development of PTSD, not just the traumatic experience itself.
7. PTSD is one of the easiest psychiatric disorders to feign because of the general public’s familiarity with the symptoms of PTSD. In addition, the symptoms of PTSD are difficult to test or measure because they are based on self-report. Mental health experts who diagnose PTSD in settings in which there is an obvious gain from the diagnosis, such as court proceedings, have a responsibility to ensure the accuracy of a diagnosis.
8. A victim’s response to IPV is not one-dimensional. The one-dimensional image of IPV victims responding in a stereotyped way undermines the complexity of victim responses and failures to recognize the many external factors that are unique to the individual.
9. Mental health experts must maintain objectivity in providing opinions, safeguarding against gender stereotypes and other implicit biases. Without such objectivity, mental health experts perpetuate gender stereotypes. The testifying mental health expert should explain the method employed to maintain objectivity.
10. Psychological tests never make a diagnosis. They may help support a diagnosis, but they are insufficient to make the actual psychiatric diagnosis. Mental health experts who overly rely on psychological tests are not performing within the standard of care for the field of psychology or psychiatry.
The widespread attention to the Depp vs. Heard trial provides an educational opportunity about the important issues of intimate partner violence and PTSD. When mental health experts do not acknowledge the limitations of the field or present opinions that do not objectively evaluate the information presented, one risks providing misinformation. Efforts to move away from gender stereotypes and closer to equity are stalled, and prevention of intimate partner violence—the ultimate goal— becomes more fraught.
Renée Sorrentino and Susan Hatters Friedman are forensic psychiatrists.
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