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To reduce the huge psychological suffering of children in war zones: this mission is what drives Mark Jordans, who was recently named professor by special appointment of Global Child and Adolescent Mental Health at the University of Amsterdam. The chair was established on behalf of the War Child Holland Foundation.

portrait Mark Jordans
Mark Jordans: 'A large number of children currently either do notreceive support for psychosocial issues, or they receive support that has not been proven to be effective'

Mark Jordans conveys passion and engagement when talking about his work, which includes acting as director of Research and Development at War Child Holland as well as being a child psychologist. He believes and actually sees that children in war zones benefit from proper psychosocial support. Does he occasionally despair? 'Yes. There are so many hotbeds and so many children in dire straits. Each year, War Child reaches 300,000 children. While this number is impressive, there are 142 million children living in war zones 142 million! This issue actually informs one of the main questions that my research sets out to answer: how can we apply the knowledge that we gain to much larger groups than in the past?'

You aim to develop a care system that provides psychosocial support to children in war zones. Which children are we talking about?

'While many people would think of child soldiers, who are extremely vulnerable children whom we naturally support, this group is only small. Every child growing up in a war zone may face the immediate consequences of war. For example, they witness air strikes, lose family members or friends in the hostilities, or experience poverty. War also has indirect consequences, as the cornerstone of society is eroded and moral values lapse. This situation may expose children to sexual abuse, among other things. It also puts great pressure on the school system as well as on parents, which in turn may cause abuse and neglect.'

How can you as a scientist help to improve the circumstances of these children?

'I use science to improve immediate psychological support for children in war zones. A large number of children currently either do not receive support for psychosocial issues, or they receive support that has not been proven to be effective. My research explores methods that actually work and that will enable me to develop a range of care that can be applied by relief organisations. These organisations include not only War Child – which cannot cope on its own, as I said before – but also UNICEF, Plan and SOS Children's Villages.'

What does this range of care comprise?

'To name an example, we have developed a protocol intervention in cooperation with the World Health Organization. A group of children spend seven sessions on getting to know each other, learning to recognise emotional issues and taking a different approach to their issues. They also learn to boost their social support base and identify activities that they enjoy. This intervention is led by a member of the local community, who will attend a biweekly training session for this purpose.'

Are the parents also involved?

'They are targeted by interventions as well. Parental stress has a strong negative effect on their attitude towards their children and may result in abuse. Our method helps to reduce such stress, after which the relationship with their child will improve.'

Do parents even want to take part in such training sessions when they are living in war zones and/or refugee camps with their children?

'Yes. It's often the case that they feel overwhelmingly powerless and insufficient as parents, so they are thrilled when they're able to participate in the intervention. We frequently hear them say that they're doing so much better afterwards. The good thing is that it's not just the mothers who start – and continue – to attend the interventions but also the fathers. Prior to the relaxation exercises, we explain why we're doing them and how stress affects the brain. They actually appreciate this information hugely. The same goes for the MP3 players with relaxation exercises.'

It goes without saying that these training sessions cannot change the circumstances in which children and their parents are living. Why is it still so important that we help them in this way?

'All the immediate support that you can offer will improve children's well-being. For example, they'll be less prone to suicidal thoughts. This point alone is worth the effort, in my opinion. From the perspective of public health, a minor improvement among a population will have a huge impact on society at large.'

Fathers and mothers in war zones feel overwhelmingly powerless and insufficient as parents

Could these interventions help to prevent war as well?

'While this fact is very difficult to establish, it has been proven that violence is often passed on from generation to generation. We might perhaps contribute to breaking this cycle.'

To what extent are you emotionally involved in your work?

'I do not experience fierce emotions on a daily basis. Let's be honest: I spend much of my time working away on my laptop in a safe environment. Academically speaking, maintaining this distance to your subject area is required for doing a good job. By contrast, I previously worked as a child psychologist in the earthquake zones of Kashmir and Nepal. The chaos and suffering there were much more tangible. Yes, such situations do make me emotional.'

Why did you start doing this type of job?

'I was more or less brought up on helping other people, as my father was a tropical doctor. For a very long time, children have been the common theme of my life; for some reason, I can't bear to see children suffer. This fact is probably why I decided to study Child Psychology, where I was the only man among 60 female students or so. I also used to work for the Childline while I was a student.'

Do you have any children yourself?

'Yes, I have a 19-year-old son. Although he is proud of my work, he does not necessarily want to follow in the footsteps of his father.'

Are you sad about this fact?

'Above all else, I hope to have taught him that we are incredibly fortunate here and that you should not take this situation for granted.'