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We Are Failing Survivors of Domestic Violence

Now that the verdict in the Depp-Heard trial is in, the media spectacle of the case may finally begin to die down.

But the impact will stay with us for years to come. Over the past several weeks, the internet became a toxic platform for survivors of domestic abuse as people trivialized, harassed, and threatened Amber Heard.

As a social worker who works with survivors of gender-based violence, I often hear how difficult it is for my clients to come forward because they fear nobody will believe them. The highly public shaming of Ms. Heard could make that much worse.

In the United States, 1 one in 4 women and 1 in 10 men experience sexual violence, physical violence, and/or stalking by an intimate partner. These statistics indicate that any one of us living in this country knows at least one person who has endured some type of intimate partner violence.

In Fairfax County, Virginia, where the trial was held and where many of the survivors I serve reside, we’ve seen an increase in the number of calls to law enforcement about abuse — and in the severity of that abuse — during the pandemic.

Ms. Heard may have the means to protect herself and her family after this whole ordeal, but most of the survivors I serve do not. After seeing what transpired in this case, many may feel discouraged to speak out against their abusers at all.

So if you’re sharing memes or jokes mocking a survivor who testified in court, please ask yourself: What if one of your loved ones is experiencing domestic violence? If they saw your “joke,” would they feel safe reaching out to you when they need it most?

The public’s treatment of Heard encourages the damaging notion that survivors must fit a specific mold to be believable. There is no such thing as the “perfect victim,” or one way to react when one has experienced violence and trauma. People deal with trauma differently.

During this trial, many viewers simply usurped the roles of clinical and forensic psychologists, legal experts, and jurors.

Even before the trial ended, social media users were quick and eager to diagnose Ms. Heard with schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and borderline personality disorder, among other things — further stigmatizing trauma for survivors and those who live with mental health conditions.

This narrative flies in the face of progress that’s made it possible for survivors to report their abuse, seek assistance, and stand up against their aggressors.

This trial has unmasked some of the worst compulsions in our society. People who identify as survivors of domestic violence can attest to the toxicity of the memes, hashtags, videos, and comments that have been shared.

We are failing all people who’ve struggled with domestic violence — not only women but also men, children, and queer and nonbinary folks. This trial may have very well convinced some who are suffering in silence that the costs of speaking up and seeking help are too great to bear.

We need to be more sympathetic and make sure that we’re creating a space where the people that matter to us feel safe sharing their truth when it matters most. We need to care more and judge less. We need to do better.