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Stigmas are stopping firearm owners from seeking mental health resources

From left, Peter Wakem, Devin Perkins and Ashley Hlebinsky at a town hall in Laramie talking about seeking mental health help as firearm owners.
Jake Wiskerchen
Firearms Research Center.
From left, Peter Wakem, Devin Perkins and Ashley Hlebinsky at a town hall in Laramie talking about seeking mental health help as firearm owners.

Ashley Hlebinsky sat cross-legged on a wooden stage in a community center in Laramie. Two men sat next to her.

“So my next question is for Devin. And then I promise I'll open it up. But I'm fascinated…You guys are getting my selfishness. Like, ‘Tell me more’,” laughed Hlebinsky as she asked the question. “So I'm kind of just wondering if you have advice for how to talk to somebody that wants to do it but is worried about the legal liability of [safe storage].”

She was leading a town hall between two firearm owners who have been open about their own mental health struggles. Hlebinsky is having them share what they’ve done with their handguns when hard times hit.

The town hall was part of the first firearms and mental health conference held by University of Wyoming’s Firearms Research Center, where Hlebinsky is the executive director.. More than half of the firearms deaths in the U.S. are done by suicide, and Wyoming has the highest number of people who take their own life per capita in the country. Getting help for mental health problems is not easy for firearm owners. And this conference is part of Hlebinsky’s mission to get rid of the stigma gun owners feel about getting help.

“[Firearm owners are worried that] if they're honest with their therapist or their psychiatrist that they're having suicidal ideation — maybe even not that extreme, but they're just struggling with something…that it can be misinterpreted in some respects as needing to have all their firearms taken away from them,“ said Hlebinsky.

Ashley Hlebinsky speaking in a panel at the Firearms and Mental Health Conference in Laramie. Credit: Jake Wiskerchen Source: Firearms Research Center.
Jake Wiskerchen
Firearms Research Center
Ashley Hlebinsky speaking in a panel at the Firearms and Mental Health Conference in Laramie.

Hlebinsky is a firearm historian. She’s spent her career trying to tell the good, the bad and the ugly of the social history of guns. But as her career skyrocketed, she started noticing that something was not right with herself.

“I noticed that there was just kind of this dichotomy to my personality. And it didn't always happen that way, but I did notice that as I kind of got busier and busier, that's when I would notice periodically [that] I would kind of crash,” she said.

She started seeing a therapist and was eventually diagnosed with Bipolar II Disorder. She said that the diagnosis helped her handle her issues, but she started becoming acutely aware of society’s perspective of gun owners with mental health problems. An advertisement for a gun organization made her want to take action.

“They were like, ‘You don't want a crazy person to get a gun’.” Hlebinsky said that was hard to hear as someone who is diagnosed with a mental health illness. “Trying to kind of reconcile with that, and what that meant, and how people can get help when that's the attitude so many people share.”

So, she decided to be honest with the world about her diagnosis. She said she was shocked by the amount of private messages she got from people who felt afraid to get help mainly because they think their firearms will be taken away.

“First and foremost, what people need to understand is, as a clinician, I have no legal right to take anyone's firearms,” said Cheryl DeWoody Foland, a licensed clinical social worker based in Rawlins. She said [that], in Wyoming clinicians can’t take away guns – but that isn’t necessarily true in other states. Many of her clients are ranchers and agriculture producers.

“I've dealt with clients who have had suicidal ideation. They have firearms, usually on them because it's part of their work. Those are tools of their trade,” she said.

Foland said she tries to explain to ranchers that getting help doesn’t mean taking away a firearm but rather working with someone to get them into a better place.

“Nine times out of 10 that person will calm down enough that we can have the conversation – because that's their fear,” Foland said. “Their fear of being locked up. The fear of losing whatever they have. The fear of not being able to get their firearms back.”

Those discussions really come down to education, which is what Walk the Talk America is trying to do nationally.

“People always assume that guns and mental health are mutually exclusive,” said Micheal Sodini, chairman of the board and CEO at Walk the Talk. “And if you mix the two, then you can get in trouble.”

So his company is working on trying to get people to fight that stigma. He said gun manufacturers have long avoided it but are starting to get on board. Some are adding free and anonymous mental health screenings in the boxes of their guns.

“You bought a gun. You should have a suicide prevention plan and a better mental health plan. You shouldn't be denied that,” said Sodini. “This should be something that you talk about in your gun ownership that should start all the way from the get go.”

Education is what Hlebinsky, the firearms historian, is trying to do. But she said the issue of firearms has just become too political and heated recently.

“I don't think either community necessarily realizes that, in their passion to defend what they believe in, that they may be pushing people to a point to not get help. Or pushing people to a point where they don't feel like they can get help,” she said.

Hlebinsky said, as she tries to talk to both sides of the gun debate, she starts to feel bullied from both directions. And sometimes that’s putting a strain on her mental health.

“If we're trying to reduce firearms deaths across the board, we shouldn't push other people into feeling like they have no other place to go,” Hlebinsky said.

If you or someone you know is experiencing a mental health crisis , dial 988.

Kamila has worked for public radio stations in California, New York, France and Poland. Originally from New York City, she loves exploring new places. Kamila received her master in journalism from Columbia University. She has won a regional Murrow award for her reporting on mental health and firearm owners. During her time leading the Wyoming Public Media newsroom, reporters have won multiple PMJA, Murrow and Top of the Rockies Excellence in Journalism Awards. In her spare time, she enjoys exploring the surrounding areas with her two pups and husband.
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