Watching expert testimonies in Amber Heard vs Johnny Depp trial leads to heightened mental health stigma

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A recent study provides evidence that watching the expert testimonies during the highly publicized court case between Amber Heard and Johnny Depp led to significantly more negative views regarding the mental health of both parties. These findings suggest that viewers’ attitudes towards mental illness became more prejudiced after watching the trial footage. The study, published in the British Journal of Psychiatry Bulletin, highlights the potential negative impact of publicly broadcasting such personal and sensitive information.

In 2022, the trial between Amber Heard and Johnny Depp captivated global audiences, being live-streamed on YouTube and accumulating over one billion views. This case stemmed from their tumultuous relationship and subsequent divorce, with Heard alleging that Depp had sexually, physically, and emotionally abused her. Depp, in turn, sued Heard for defamation following an op-ed she wrote in The Washington Post in 2018, in which she described herself as a survivor of domestic violence.

The trial was a spectacle, drawing intense media coverage and public scrutiny. Both parties presented expert witnesses who diagnosed each other with various mental health disorders. For example, Heard was described as having borderline personality disorder and histrionic personality disorder, while Depp was labeled as having paranoia and substance use disorder. These terms, used to undermine the credibility of each party, were broadcasted globally, leaving a significant impact on the public perception of their mental health.

The researchers at the University of Surrey were intrigued by the widespread consumption of the trial footage and its potential effects on public attitudes towards mental health. Given the prevalence of mental health issues and the importance of reducing stigma, they wanted to assess whether watching the expert testimonies during the trial influenced viewers’ perceptions of mental illness in general. The aim was to understand if the manner in which mental health was discussed and weaponized in the courtroom contributed to more negative and prejudiced views.

The study involved 38 participants, predominantly undergraduate students aged between 20 and 23 years. These participants had not previously viewed any material related to the trial. They were asked to complete the Prejudice Towards People with a Mental Illness scale (PPMI) both before and after watching selected footage from the trial. The PPMI scale measures various dimensions of prejudice, including fear/avoidance, malevolence, authoritarianism, and unpredictability towards people with mental illness.

Participants were randomly assigned to watch either the testimony concerning Amber Heard by Dr. Shannon Curry or the testimony concerning Johnny Depp by Dr. David Spiegel. Each session included about 15 minutes of trial footage, focusing on the expert’s assessment of the respective party’s mental health. After viewing the footage, participants were asked to complete the PPMI again, but this time with the questions specifically referring to either Heard or Depp.

The results showed a marked increase in stigmatizing attitudes towards the mental health of both Heard and Depp after participants watched the trial footage. This increase was statistically significant across several subscales of the PPMI, including fear/avoidance, malevolence, and unpredictability. However, there was no significant change in the authoritarianism subscale.

Interestingly, the negative attitudes formed were similar for both Heard and Depp, indicating that the expert testimonies had a broadly similar impact on viewers’ perceptions, regardless of which party was being discussed. This suggests that the way mental health was portrayed in the trial led to a generalized negative view rather than specific biases towards one individual.

“The unmediated availability online of video in which mental health labels were used by experts to discredit testimony, tarnish reputation, and undermine the credibility of both parties is highly concerning,” said study author Oliver Mason, a reader in Psychology at the University of Surrey.

“Our evidence suggests that this may lead to stigmatising and prejudicial opinions of the mental health of both parties being formed. It raises the question of whether expert testimony regarding mental health should be widely available in this way for public consumption. There is the clear danger when this happens that prejudicial views of mental health in general are formed.”

While the study provides valuable insights, it is important to acknowledge its limitations. The sample size was small and consisted mainly of university students, which limits the generalizability of the findings to the broader population. Additionally, the study design does not allow for conclusions about whether the observed increase in prejudiced views extends to mental illness in general, or if it was specific to the parties involved in the trial.

Future research should aim to include a more diverse and larger sample to better understand the broader implications of these findings. It would also be beneficial to explore the long-term effects of such media exposure on attitudes towards mental illness. Furthermore, examining the impact of different types of media coverage, including both positive and negative portrayals of mental health, could provide a more comprehensive understanding of how media influences public perceptions.

The study, “Trial by YouTube: effects of expert psychiatric witness testimony on viewers’ opinions of Amber Heard and Johnny Depp,” was authored by Oliver Mason, Beth Horton, and Caitlin Starrett.

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