In recent times, amidst all the other news, it has been the high-profile defamation trial between Johnny Depp and Amber Heard which has gripped everyone’s attention. Whether or not we were planning to follow this trial, we all found ourselves sucked into this courtroom drama as we were bombarded with audios and video clips, analysis from everyone ranging from body language experts to mental health professionals and armchair critics on social media and a barrage of often cringeworthy memes on social media. A trial which was based on a couple’s interpersonal relationship became a worldwide spectacle and unfolding drama in this era of social media.
While this unfolded like a gripping thriller over the past few weeks, we need to remind ourselves that this wasn’t a movie – it is real life, even if both Johnny Depp and Amber Heard are famous actors from the big screen. In reality, what we witnessed was hearing about grim and traumatising details around domestic violence. In this entire trial though, while Johnny Depp might have come out on the top of the defamation trial, we need to also seriously weigh in on what happened and the lessons we can draw from this. In reality, this trial had no ‘winner’ and by the end it was the cause of Mental Health and Domestic Abuse which lost in the entire process.
Since the trial began in the courtrooms, what we also saw was a parallel social media trial. Endless clips, breakdowns of testimonies, and trending hashtags flooded our timelines on social media along with people outright declaring whether they were ‘Team Johnny’ or ‘Team Amber’. While for viewers it was a break from the mundane and routine news around Covid-19 and other happenings, for the couple it was a public scrutiny of the intimate details of their crumbling relationship and a reliving of their trauma which became fodder to memes, jokes and opinions pouring in from all around the world. While for many this became an opportunity to garner followers and viewers with witty comments or online content, it also showed us what our own attitudes have become towards Mental Health, domestic violence, spousal abuse, substance abuse and how casually we’ve started treating these grave issues.
We need to realise that this trial hasn’t just been about Depp and Heard as celebrities, it is about them as real people and the issues which they represent. The challenges surrounding Mental Illness, addiction, abuse, co-dependency are things which many people around the world face every single day. So when it came to the social media hounding and memes, the thing which was sadly forgotten is that while Johnny Depp and Amber Heard may never see or may not have seen what all was shared online, those we know or those who are battling these issues would and it would really hurt them. The inescapable meme-ifcation of abuse and Mental Illness which emanated from this trial has exacerbated the trauma of those who are survivors of abuse. The spectacle made out of the claims along with emotionally charged content on social media garnered large audiences and also negatively impacted the landscape for other survivors of abuse. Such messaging which was so heavy on emotion rather than rational reasoning affects how we process information and can also push us to see the world as entirely black or white, with no space for grey.
Now, let’s look at how this damaged the narratives around Mental Health and Mental Illness. Ever since the trial began, there was an increase in online searches of people trying to better understand the mental health disorders being discussed. Through the course of this trial, we saw several psychological and Mental Health related terms such as Borderline Personality disorder (BPD), Histrionic Personality Disorder (HPS) and Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) being used. Additionally, we also bore witness to both parties raising questions about the psychological stability of each other and raising a doubt on the credibility of each other’s testimonies and accounts of abuse owing to these supposed diagnoses. This leads to several problems in itself. When we tend of oversimplify these nuances around Mental Health or using them as insults, it can further the stigma around Mental Health and certain conditions while also prevent many from seeking help. This trial also showed us that while social media has made using terms like ‘trauma’ more commonplace, we don’t all know what these terms and labels mean and end up using them either very casually or harshly, and in both cases, we deplete the real meaning. It is this misuse which creates misunderstanding as well. Another incorrect but warped message which came from the trial was that those with Mental illnesses and personality disorders cannot be believed or trusted. In reality, what we need to understand is that not all abusers have mental health issues, and not all those with mental health issues are abusive. This attributing all the abuse to a diagnosis is also particularly problematic because it tries to absolve an abuser of their actions as it excuses the wrongful behaviours and puts the responsibility on the victim to understand and accept the violence because of the diagnosis of the other person.
Another aspect around the damage to the Mental Health cause has been around how the narratives around Personality disorders have been further stigmatised in the course of the trial. In a social media era where every aspect of a celebrity’s life is subject to public scrutiny and endless online debates, charging someone with having a Personality Disorder is sometimes used a means of discrediting them, irrespective of whether the diagnosis is true. Both BPD and HPD carry significant stigma as is and we also see this in the portrayal of these conditions with Hollywood itself. What people often don’t realise in this is that Personality Disorders also exist on a spectrum and not everyone with the same diagnosis is going to show the same symptoms. It is also important to remember that not everyone with a Personality disorder will be abusive – so if Amber Heard was actually abusive, it is not because she has BPD but because she has abusive tendencies. That nuance has entirely been lost in this social media circus. Additionally, when it comes to BPD, there are several aspects around it such as the deep-rooted fear of abandonment but still when BPD is spoken about the focus remains on the negative elements such as being manipulative, cunning, attention seeking, predisposed to lying or being obsessed with one's own victimhood leading to one being willing to do anything to further the narrative. Owing to this, most of the characterisation of Heard as a villain was easy for those on social media who were quick to label her as ‘toxic’, ‘abusive’, ‘manipulative’ and a ‘liar’ to discredit her side of the story. In this entire breakdown of their marriage and the lawsuits which followed, the culprit very quickly became their psychological and mental health issues and this is a dangerous narrative as it can be very damaging to others who might be struggling with a similar diagnosis as they could also be at the receiving end of similar stigma.
Lastly, let us examine how this trial has hurt the cause of Domestic Abuse and those who have had to face abuse. Domestic abuse/ violence is a grave allegation as it is crime which can include elements of physical, emotional, sexual, economic, and psychological abuse and also can include threats and stalking. Over the course of the past 6 weeks, while memes and reels around the testimony of the abuse from Amber Heard went viral, she faced trolling, death threats and harassment online at the hands of fans who rallied behind Depp. The opposite has also been true to some extent. The concern which needs to be addressed here is that there is a fear amongst those who have suffered abuse that their testimonies won’t be believed but will instead by mocked or discredited. This also holds true for male victims who have been worried and afraid that if they spoke up or sought help, they would be disbelieved or their experiences might be downplayed or minimised. This trial has also been traumatising for those who have experienced any form of domestic or family-based violence as a lot of the issues and instances which were brought up in the trial have been triggering. We know that both Johnny Depp and Amber Heard are public figures and this trial would garnered media attention, but no one would have anticipated that the cause of domestic violence would have been portrayed in this manner where between the media and social media it would end up being trivialised to this degree. Domestic violence is a catastrophic, tragic and potentially deadly form of abuse and the consequences can be dire and conversations around it need to be done in an informed and educative manner.
Domestic violence experts have also expressed their worry that the spectacle of this trial could keep many from coming forward and sharing their story as what unfurled in the trial has been every victim’s worst nightmare. For anyone who has experienced abuse, their sense of empowerment has come from being able to tell their stories freely and being believed as this helps them feel free and helps in healing. We already know that globally almost 70% of domestic violence cases go unreported, but when a court system is used to silence victims, it can have serious and scary repercussions for others. This trial has also made victims feel afraid of the kind of accusations of lying that they could be subjected to and this very fear also emboldens abusers further. Another challenge that emerged from this trial is that it followed the dichotomy of the victim and abuser – one is good and one is bad, when in reality what we have seen in this case is that there appears to have been complex trauma of both sides with both parties being abusive, co-dependent and that neither of their stories are entirely representative. That nuance was entirely lost as the grey areas faded and it all became about taking a side – Team Johnny or Team Amber.
After 6 weeks of a courtroom and online circus which gave us several insights into what was in fact a toxic relationship, there really isn't a winner here. It showed us the bleak side of society as this became a subject of memes, stand-up sketches, Saturday Night Live bits and talks shows all trivialising the real issues which were at stake.
While the trial is now over, domestic violence and mental illness will continue to affect many lives. The media and trending hashtags around Depp and Heard will quieten down, but those who live in or have lived in abusive households or relationships will continue to struggle with no spotlight or online community rallying behind them. These people could be our neighbours, friends or even family who are suffering in silence or might now be pushed into silence as a result of what we have seen in the past 6 weeks. What we have witnessed is a devastating and shattering example of domestic abuse and possible mental health issues – and neither of which are a laughing matter. Let us make sure we learn some lessons from this and not minimise the harsh realities of abuse of mental illness, be it for a celebrity or someone we know.
Written by: Vedica Podar
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