April 29, 2022 – Amid all the attention this month to actor Johnny Depp’s $50 million lawsuit against ex-wife Amber Heard, a psychological term has entered the public’s lexicon: histrionic personality disorder.
Depp says that an op-ed Heard wrote in 2018 hurt his career, and he’s suing for defamation.
The term was used in court during the testimony of Shannon Curry, PsyD, a clinical and forensic psychologist in California and Hawaii, who carried out a psychological evaluation of Heard and said that she met with Heard for 12 hours.
Due to her condition, Heard is very concerned with image, prone to cruelty and blaming others, and unable to admit responsibility for doing something wrong, Curry testified, as reported in Newsweek.
So what exactly is histrionic personality disorder, and how does it differ from the other, better-known personality disorders, such as paranoid, narcissistic, or obsessive-compulsive?
Histrionic personality disorder – histrionic means overly theatrical or melodramatic – tends to be more common in women, can be learned or inherited, and comes with “intense, unstable emotions and distorted self-images,” according to the Cleveland Clinic.
And those with the disorder tend to behave dramatically, rely on other people’s approval to bolster their self-esteem, and have an “overwhelming desire to be noticed.”
Histrionic personality disorder is far less commonly diagnosed than narcissistic or borderline personality disorder, says Jessica January Behr, PsyD, a licensed psychologist in New York City.
“The criteria for the disorder is probably much more commonly seen than diagnosed,” she says. “To diagnose someone with histrionic personality disorder, a person has to meet five out of nine very specific criteria.”
These nine criteria include being uncomfortable unless you’re the center of attention, your emotions shifting rapidly, acting very dramatically – as though performing before an audience – with exaggerated emotions and expressions yet appearing to lack sincerity, and constantly seeking reassurance or approval, according to the Cleveland Clinic.
Ultimately, this disorder is a serious one, and the label shouldn’t be used unless a mental health expert who has evaluated you and performed certain diagnostic tests confirms it.
For treatment, people with the disorder will generally seek counseling to uncover the motivations and fears associated with their thoughts and behavior, and the counselor will help the person learn to relate to others in a more positive way.
A health care professional might also prescribe medication to treat the depression and anxiety that often come with this disorder, according to the Cleveland Clinic.
“It’s good that people are learning about this psychological term, but it’s important to avoid making an armchair diagnosis,” Behr says. “We also have to be careful not to conflate ‘dramatic’ and ‘histrionic.’ To have histrionic personality disorder requires certain criteria to be met, and this isn’t a term to be used lightly.”