Eye Movement Desensitisation and Reprocessing (EMDR) emerged as a result of a serendipitous discovery in 1987 by psychologist Francine Shapiro, who found that personal memories of distressing events became more distant and lost their emotional charge as her eyes spontaneously and rapidly moved from side to side. She trialled this finding with many people, and by 1989 she had completed the first systematic study of this new therapy. Her clients were people who had been diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and included rape and molestation victims and Vietnam veterans. The results of this study were published in April 1989, in what was then a very new professional publication, the Journal of Traumatic Stress.
The results of this study were startling. The participants initially rated their level of distress when recalling an old traumatic memory, and the average distress rating was 7.45 on a 0 to 10 scale. At the end of the single 90 minute session they rated their level of distress as 0.13. Three months later, without any further intervention, the rating of distress was 0.73. It could be said that these results were seen by many as being too good to be true. The journal in which she published her study was quite new, and unknown to the vast majority of clinicians and academics.
Just after that study was published a wealthy transport magnate from NSW, Don Heggie, found out about EMDR and flew to the USA to be treated by Shapiro. Don served in Bomber Command during World War II, was shot down and spent several years in a German POW camp. Because the Allies were bombing civilian targets in Germany, such aircrew were given a particularly hard time in captivity, and as a result Don suffered from chronic and severe PTSD throughout his life. His response to a brief series of EMDR treatment sessions with Shapiro was remarkable. He had suffered significant PTSD symptoms including nightmares for over 45 years since his time in captivity, and after his therapy his nightmares ceased completely. He generously offered to pay for one person from each state in Australia to fly to the USA to be trained by Shapiro. Those who took up the offer included Chris Lee from WA, later to become a world recognised EMDR researcher, and Gary Fulcher from NSW, later to become one of the first Australian trainers.
By 1990 a few pioneering therapists in Australia had started using EMDR, but it wasn’t until 1992 that this new therapy was presented to a large Australian audience. It was then that Shapiro presented her data in Australia, at the World Congress of Behaviour Therapy, held at Jupiters Casino on the Gold Coast. The impact of her presentation, the data being entirely new to most of the audience, was electrifying. Within days clinicians were clamouring to be trained in this new technique, and Shapiro hastily arranged for her team of facilitators to come to Australia. On the other hand, the response of academics was predictably sceptical and hostile. The intervention was not derived from any known theory, was contrary to the principles of trauma therapy at the time, it’s mechanisms of action unknown, Shapiro wasn’t a career academic, and most tellingly, her therapy produced markedly significant results in a very short time. This scientist-practitioner schism was a significant factor in the slow adoption of EMDR in the early days, but with Shapiro’s encouragement, much research was published, and EMDR is now accepted by international authorities as a frontline treatment for PTSD. Those authorities include the World Health Organisation, Phoenix Australia, and the Australian Psychological Society.
The first Australian trainings were conducted shortly after that 1992 Congress. Shapiro continued to bring her supervision team to Australia twice a year from 1992 to 1996, and along the way several Australians were recruited to train as facilitators to assist at trainings.
In 1996 the newly formed EMDR International Association, based in the USA, took over the responsibility from Shapiro for setting independent standards for training and accreditation. Australian trainers Chris Lee and Graham Taylor were in the first batch of trainers accredited by EMDRIA outside of Shapiro’s training arm, the EMDR Institute. Gary Fulcher started teaching EMDR, under the auspices of Shapiro’s EMDR Institute.
In the mid 1990s an Australian EMDR Association was formed by Jennifer Braithwaite and Mark Grant. Jennifer was the inaugural chairperson, Mark Grant later taking over that position. The association initially started strongly, reaching around 150 members in the early years, but through attrition the committee was reduced to just Mark Grant, who managed to keep the association functioning, with the dwindling membership, until 2008.
In 2008 a small group of therapists met in Sydney and elected officers to reinvigorate the association. Pam Brown was elected president, with Dave Howsam Vice President. That group meet every three months at their own expense, to lay the foundations of what is now the EMDR Association of Australia. A constitution was written and work commenced on the task of establishing standards and accreditation processes consistent with other EMDR associations, in particular EMDRIA and EMDR Europe.
The association’s first training of Accredited Consultants occurred in 2010, assisted by Dr Sandi Richmond from UK who conducts consultant training for EMDR Europe. The following year the Australian Association formed an Accreditation and Standards Committee under the direction of Phil Nottingham.
By 2013 the association had started to revive it’s membership. Pam Brown completed her term as President in 2013, handing the reins to Graham Taylor, who also took on the role as Treasurer. From 2014 to the present the association has grown very strongly, from a membership of just over 100 to our current membership (February 2024) of over 2170. In the last few years the Association has mounted a series of webinars for members, and conducted an annual conference. Our conference presenters have been Ad de Jongh (2016), Robert Miller (2017) and Joany Spierings (2018).
The Association has supported the EMDR Research Foundation by matching member donations, and we have also funded Australian research into the application of EMDR in remote Aboriginal communities, and in the treatment of depression. We now have a substantial research budget to support Australian researchers.
We have developed our own sophisticated Find a Therapist service, found on our website. This assists members of the public to find a local EMDR therapist. Full Members, i.e., those who have completed their basic EMDR training, may list on this service as part of the member benefits of the association.
We have been active on the political front, successfully lobbying for the removal of the limitation on using EMDR put in place by the New South Wales Director of Public Prosecutions. We have made a substantial submission to Medicare to have EMDR included in the list of Focused Psychological Strategies so that EMDR therapy attracts a rebate under Medicare.
The future of EMDR in Australia is assured. Clinicians are learning EMDR in record numbers, and we have a growing number of Trainers and Consultants to meet this demand. Research is showing that many mental health conditions have a trauma as an underlying factor, and EMDR is increasingly being applied across many conditions, including depression, addictions, eating disorders, anxiety disorders, and chronic pain.
Compiled by Graham Taylor, with assistance from Mark Grant and Pam Brown.