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Battling Suicide In A 'Gun State' Means Treading Carefully

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Wyoming has the highest per capita suicide rate in the nation. Guns are also a big part of everyday life: The state has one of the highest rates of gun ownership.

It's not hard to find someone in the state who's been directly affected by a suicide in which guns were the lethal means. BJ Ayers has not one but two of those very tragic stories, and she has turned her grief into action.

"I got involved, I guess, volunteering, or ... just learning about suicide after Brett's death. And then when Beau died in August of 2009 — he was 26 — I just really felt compelled to do something," she says.

She started a suicide prevention nonprofit called the Grace For 2 Brothers Foundation. It's named after Brett, her 19-year-old son who took his own life in 2005; and Beau, her oldest son, who killed himself in 2009. Both shot themselves.

"I can say, 'Woulda, coulda, shoulda,' or ... 'If only.' But I can't go back and do that," she says. "I think it's very important for people to realize that having that access to a firearm can be very tragic, and in our family, it was."

Suicide isn't easy to talk about. In a state like Wyoming, its connection to guns makes it even tougher.

"It's not that we want to take the gun away from the gun owner," Ayers says. "We know that we have responsible gun owners in Wyoming. Wyoming is a gun state. We're rich in that history."

But the simple fact is a gun is used in about three-quarters of all suicides in the state. Nationally, guns are used about 50 percent of the time. Yet in Wyoming, Ayers says, you have to divorce guns and suicide.

"I think gun control is at one end of a very long table, and access to lethal means is at the other end of that very long table, and I think they're two different things," she says.

Ayers says suicide prevention has to be focused on firearm safety. That is, requiring that locks be included with all gun purchases. Much of her work is also in education. She stresses to people that guns should be locked away in homes, and she teaches everyone how to talk to people who may be suicidal, and get them immediate help. She's not alone in the effort.

A broad suicide-prevention campaign launched recently by the Wyoming Department of Health includes dramatic public service announcements. Ayers and her story are also featured prominently in a series of Web videos. She also tells her story traveling around the state as one of Wyoming's four suicide-prevention coordinators.

Ayers says the suicide problem is starting to be talked about more. And for Ayers, that talk is not just about the tough subject of access to guns. Her son Brett refused to get help when he was battling his mental illness.

"I think we have a cultural norm here in Wyoming, where, for lack of a better word, you know, 'Cowboy up ... Be tough,' " she says. "It's not OK to get help, and that's what we want to break. We want to break that stigma and realize that it's OK."

One way Grace For 2 Brothers is trying to break that stigma is through an annual suicide-prevention walk in Cheyenne. The first one in 2010 drew a crowd of a couple hundred. Next month, Ayers expects more than 700 people.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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