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Iris the Dragon Helps Kids Cope with Mental Illness

By Keiana Smith-McDowell

She may be a colorful, yet fictional character that lives under the riverbank, but with the help of some friends, Iris is helping kids all across North America understand mental illness while lifting the stigma attached to it.

Iris the Dragon is the protagonist in the Iris the Dragon book series by Canadian author Gayle Grass. The series, targeted at children ages 8 to 12 serves as an educational tool that provides mental health literacy to help children better understand different mental illnesses they are dealing with. Iris serves as the spokesperson for mental health issues and makes children comfortable about opening up about their thoughts and feelings.

According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 4 million children and adolescents in this live with a serious mental disorder that causes significant functional impairments at home, at school and with peers. Of children ages 9 to 17, 21 percent have a diagnosable mental or addictive disorder that causes at least minimal impairment.

In a 2007 article for Perth Heritage News, Grass says she decided on a dragon for the main character of her books because in many cultures dragons are viewed as wise, benevolent, magical creatures that bring good luck.

Through bright illustrations and prose, the series, which currently consist of six books, address various mental illnesses that each central character is dealing with. On topics including attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), anxiety disorder, autism and bipolar disorder, Iris advocates community building methods for coping. She also lends her services a friend and counselor of sorts, encouraging young kids to educate others while facing their mental illness head on.

These books also teach leadership skills, the importance of hard work, and being confident which are all valuable lessons necessary for growth.

In the case of Project: Kids, Let’s Talk, the latest installment in the series, Grass takes a different approach by exploring the challenges faced while young and living in a military environment. Luc, a young boy in a military family learns that he’s dealing with anxiety and isolation as a result of moving to a different base, being a away from his best friend, and starting a new school. After first introduction, Iris and Ottie the Otter decide to welcome Luc to the Riverbank with a party and a surprise way of making him feel happier about his new home.

At the party, Iris shows Luc a map of all the military bases and communities around the world. She also has a special project for Luc. The project, which later becomes known as Project: Kids Let’s Talk, calls for Luc to write and become pen pals with kids in other military communities. Writing the letters provides an outlet for Luc to release his feelings, make new friends, and learn that he is not alone.

The character Luc describes his experience saying:“This project is really fun. I am making new friends with kids who are a lot like me. They get lonely too when they move, until they meet new friends. It is good to talk about these things.”

The project soon takes flight and turns into a movement, with local kids and kids all around the world becoming involved. This makes Luc’s parents very proud of him and helps to boost his confidence and mood. While quickly moving out of the zone of isolation, Luc learns the importance of responsibility, but also how to communicate with his parents about his feelings.

Using Iris the Dragon as the main character offers a delicate approach to a very serious issue, which makes kids feel more comfortable about expressing themselves. The story is told through the eyes of a child which makes the topic more relatable.

“Military children face difficult challenges, and this book goes a long way to help children deal with their grief due to relocations and deployments,” writes Walter Semianiw, Lieutenant-General and Commander of Canada Command of Project: Kids, Let's Talk. “It passes the important message that these children are not alone.”

If you are looking for a way to understand what your child is going through, the Iris the Dragon series is the perfect way to get the conversation started.