Interview with Isabel Fernandez, Chair of EMDR Europe

11 July, 2022

Following the recent EMDR Europe Conference in Italy, we share a fascinating podcast interview with its Chairman Isabel Fernandez.  

A formidable force in the world of EMDR therapy for the last twenty years, Isabel’s many roles include chair of EMDR Italy, senior consultant, trainer, author and Director of the Psych-traumatology Research Centre of Milan.  Intriguingly she also holds the title ‘Knight Commander’ – awarded to her by the President of Italy.

In this wide ranging interview Isabel says: “I have been busy since elementary school! And It’s impossible not to be busy with all the new results, great applications, development and process we’ve been experiencing with EMDR.”

Training with EMDR founder Francine Shapiro in Boston during the 1990s, Isabel describes how she brought EMDR therapy back to Italy, and from the first 40 therapists trained there are now over 20,000 in her country. The success story today includes the NHS reaching out to EMDR Europe for training.

However, she doesn’t fail to acknowledge resistance and scepticism around EMDR therapy in the early days. When presenting at conferences and events “…we were always attacked by at least one person in the audience.  But that didn’t stop the group moving forward.”

She talks about humanitarian assistance across the years of Italian earthquakes, beginning in 2002 in Southern Italy when the only building to fall was a primary school, killing half the pupils. EMDR therapists worked with the villagers, moving forward and helping them find solace as a community. During the major earthquake to hit central Italy in 2016 EMDR Italy stayed for ten months as demand for their support was immense.  Isabel says:  

“It was very valuable for all our members to participate for a few days, then they work with [their own] clients with anxiety and depression and feel even more confident.  It’s like a school, very intensive training in the field.”

In the early years: “there was not such a culture of [understanding] trauma and EMDR Italy did a lot of education and developed that culture…including a trauma informed community within police, law enforcement and emergency services.”

Isabel relates one incident where the colleagues of a fire worker in Milan noticed he was having a bad time after being exposed to a terrible explosion and asked him to get in touch with Isabel. She left him a message:

“A year later he called and said: ‘I’m Albert’.  I said ‘ok, I was waiting!’  He said ‘but I’m not calling for me, it’s my daughter, she is sixteen and not eating, she is getting worse, going into anorexia, she needs help.’ I saw her a week later and said ‘what is going on?’.  She describes everything, and says it started after dad had the trauma.”

Isabel continues: “He never accepted help, but he was very needy and having a terrible emotional time, even his colleagues could tell how bad. You can imagine his adolescent daughter absorbed all the suffering from her father. It’s very clear if you don’t get help your family starts carrying the emotional suffering, especially at a vulnerable age.”

Looking at EMDR therapy today she says:

“We can’t take away the symptom if we don’t know what is causing the symptom. The EMDR protocol, all we have, is what psychotherapy has been talking about for years.  That’s why trainees all find something common to their approach in EMDR, the model is very complete and friendly to the client.”