Mental health of military kids focus of new book

Children in military families across Canada will soon be hearing a fairy tale to help them understand mental health and encourage them to seek help when needed.

Iris the Dragon tries to counter mental health stigma

A charity called Iris the Dragon paired up with the Canadian Forces to produce a book for children in military families to encourage them to talk about their feelings and mental health. (Iris the Dragon)

Children in military families across Canada will soon be hearing a fairy tale to help them understand mental health and encourage them to seek help when needed.

A new book written specifically for them, called Project: Kids, Let's Talk, will be delivered to Canadian Forces bases across the country.

It is the result of a partnership between the Department of National Defence and Iris the Dragon, a charity based near Ottawa that produces books to educate children on mental health and well-being.

Storytelling has always been used as a means of communicating values and moral lessons, said Jessica Grass, who works with the charity that was founded by her mother Gayle, the author of the books.

"We've written fairy tales to help children understand how to embrace and communicate their thoughts and feelings," Grass said. "And with that lesson in life early on, we hope that by being able to have a dialogue about their thoughts and feelings that that will lead them to getting the help they need, should they need it at one point."

Grass gave a presentation earlier this week at an international conference on stigma and mental illness in Ottawa. Hosted by the Mental Health Commission of Canada, the three-day conference was the largest ever of its kind, and featured actress Glenn Close as a keynote speaker.

Grass talked at the conference about how Iris the Dragon uses storytelling as a way to "re-author" perceptions toward mental health and wellness so that youth are encouraged to talk about their feelings instead of being reluctant or afraid.

"Let's start with a new generation that, hopefully, will not grow up with a stigma towards mental health," she told CBC News.

The partnership with the Canadian Forces was forged two years ago when Grass's mother was at an awards ceremony and met Lt.-Gen. Walt Semianiw. At the time, he was assistant chief of military personnel (he later became chief) and in charge of the health and well-being of Canada's military members.

He liked the idea of Iris the Dragon and was successful in getting the Department of National Defence to support the production of a special book for military families.

Studies have shown that children in military families can experience additional stress, feelings of isolation, and grief when a parent is deployed — and after a parent gets home and family life is different because a parent may have psychological injuries.

Military calls book a useful tool

The charity worked closely with the Military Family Services Program to develop the book's contents, and two years later, 25,000 copies — in French and English — are printed and about to be distributed to family resource centres on bases.

In the book, the dragon character Iris helps a young boy whose father is in the army find ways to deal with the challenges and stress associated with growing up in a military family. At the end of the book there is information and tips for parents.

Semianiw describes the book as a useful tool for Canadian Forces families. "Military children face difficult challenges, and this book goes a long way to help children deal with their grief due to relocations and deployments," he said in a statement.

"Healthy communications and open dialogue being the keys to success, this book plays a vital role as the catalyst for discussions and the sharing of feelings amongst military family members," Semianiw said.

How stigma acts as a barrier to military members seeking mental health help was a special focus at the conference in Ottawa this week. Papers that were presented discussed how the fear of stigma can be even more prevalent in militaries because of the traditional values of toughness and self-reliance.

This is the sixth book that Iris the Dragon has published. The books are sold online through the charity's website and study units for schools are also for sale.

For the Grass family the charity is a labour of love — Gayle Grass launched it 12 years ago because her son Trevor has schizoaffective disorder. The family has struggled to find effective services and treatment, and Jessica said her mother started writing the books partly to help other families.

They are dedicated to erasing the stigma around mental health problems, and while Grass said they haven't given up on adults, children are "a clean slate" and should be taught help-seeking behaviour from an early age.

When they fall off their bike and get a scrape, children are taught to ask for a Band-Aid, they are taught about physical ailments, "but we don't teach them about their mental health," she said.

"We want to work with kids at an early age to make sure that they have the right start in life and they're having the right ideas about mental health and wellness," said Grass.