WARRENSBURG — While working to break the stigma of suicide, April Roller-Morris and her friend Erica Williams found a unique way to become a local pillar in mental wellness as well as suicide prevention and advocacy.
Roller-Morris, of Warrensburg, and Williams are co-founders of Cos4Hope, a newly federally recognized tax-exempt nonprofit under Section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code.
Cos4Hope is a nonprofit that offers "Hope for mental wellness and suicide prevention through support, education, research, and resource facilitation for geeks by geeks."
After losing her husband to suicide, Roller-Morris began exploring suicide prevention and mental wellness to help those struggling with loss or personally struggling.
"We started that fairly early on in our loss," Roller-Morris said. "We started with community walks to help people understand mental wellness and hopefully, you know, help shed a light on suicide prevention. We were able to raise a lot of funds. We had yearly community walks that were in the fall and then we expanded to campus walks."
Roller-Morris noticed two cosplayers attended during a campus walk she hosted in Spring 2016 at the University of Central Missouri. After seeing these people's positive impact on participants, she reached out to other cosplayers and invited them to upcoming events.
Cosplay describes dressing up as a character from a work of fiction, such as a comic book, video game, or television show.
"When the cosplayers showed up, the atmosphere started to change and it was a very positive response…" she recalled. "We decided to send a call out to cosplayers with #cosplayforacause and we had about 12 to 15 cosplayers respond, which shocked us both. We were just like, 'Oh my goodness.' We didn't expect that type of response at all. We were kind of blown away."
Roller-Morris said "positivity was just radiating off of everyone," compared to prior walks that had been more somber events. Instead of an event for remembrance, the events with cosplayers became a source of joy.
Roller-Morris and Williams also noticed the cosplayers chose beads to wear from the honor bead table at the event. The table had beads of different colors representing each personal experience or struggle.
This interaction stuck with Roller-Morris and Williams, and that is when they knew cosplay could play a big part in their mission.
"We've got increased morale, increased positivity from not just the cosplayers, but the participants," Roller-Morris said. "And on top of that, we've got the cosplayers going over and picking up honor beads for themselves. We were like, 'Oh wow, there's something to this.'"
After researching and using personal experience, Roller-Morris and Williams found cosplay can positively affect mental health in various ways. So they combined their passion and hobby, which began Cos4Hope.
"When a person is part of a fandom, they're part of something," Roller-Morris said. "So being part of a fandom or a fandom family decreases that social isolation. It decreases that suicidal ideation. And it helps a person feel that they're not alone… But when they would go to a comic convention like a Comic Con and stuff like that, they would get a lot of positive reinforcement and all of these wonderful, amazing, positive affirmations. … And it's wonderful when you see it with the children as well, especially with the adult con-goers when it comes to the kids because it's. That 'wow, you're so cool' type of reaction."
Roller-Morris said those positive affirmations help build self-esteem and can offer a tool for people to utilize in challenging situations.
"These cosplayers are taking these wonderful, amazing, positive affirmations throughout this short chunk of time," she explained. "And they're going throughout their day, as you know, Jane Doe. And, you know, just functioning as normal. And then, bam, they come across the situation or an obstacle that they're just like, 'Oh crap, I don't know what to do.' And they don't know how to respond. Well, what we found was that people are able to kind of relive or recall what they experienced when they were cosplaying as their favorite character and kind of bring that inner strength out and work on overcoming that obstacle.
"So, in essence, cosplay is becoming a coping mechanism for those people. And it's absolutely wonderful and beautiful to see."
Cos4Hope has continued to host events and provide advocacy for mental wellness and suicide prevention, with the addition of cosplay.
Roller-Morris said it's "beautiful and wonderful" to see the growth of Cos4Hope, the increased mental wellness in the community, and the acceptance of being part of a fandom. She encourages anyone to check in on their loved ones, especially if there are mental health concerns. Even giving someone just five minutes can make a difference, she added.
All that helps foster a sense of belonging and reminds people they're not alone in the world.
"At the end of the day, that's what matters. That's the wonderful, beautiful privilege we have," Roller-Morris said. "(Founding member) Megan (Deaver), Erica and I strongly believe that what we're doing is a very special, wonderful blessing. We know people don't get an opportunity like this. And it really is an honor to be able to sit with people who have lost loved ones to suicide, sit with people who are struggling and you know, just give them that little glimmer of hope and let them know that there's another day, that they're going to be OK and it's just wonderful."
For more information, visit www.cos4hope.org.
The national suicide and crisis lifeline is available by calling or texting 988. There is also an online chat at 988lifeline.org. Both are available 24 hours a day and offer English and Spanish services.
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