LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- After losing his job and his girlfriend, Michael Gousha drove to a rural spot in Bullitt County with a pistol he'd bought just days earlier. Parking near an old barn, he got out of the car, fired all the bullets but one, placed the gun to his head and pulled the trigger — ending his life at 23.
Trying to silence the voices in his head, Larry Lepine of Leslie County took handfuls of illegal amphetamines — but survived to rebuild his life.
Both men were distraught. Both suffered from mental illness. The difference was that one used a gun, obliterating any opportunity for a second chance.
While the recent shootings in Newtown, Conn., and Aurora, Colo., have focused attention on the risks of the mentally ill using guns to hurt others, statistics show they are far more likely to turn guns on themselves.
Suicides, which accounted for nearly two-thirds of U.S. gun deaths in 2010, are on the rise throughout the nation, and in Kentucky, where guns are prevalent and easily accessible.
While suicide attempts usually stem from temporary setbacks that, in time, seem less dire, access to guns makes the equation much more lethal — because those who choose a gun over pills, cutting or hanging to end their life almost never survive.
Experts are divided on whether stricter gun controls are the answer to curbing suicides, but they agree that family and friends can best protect loved ones struggling with suicidal thoughts by helping keep guns out of their hands.
"Often when people make suicide attempts, they see no other way out because their thinking is impaired. ... They want the pain to stop. They want peace," said Ramona Johnson, president and chief executive officer of Bridgehaven Mental Health Services in Louisville. "When they use guns, that's a pretty lethal method."
Statistics drive home the point:
-- More than 38,000 Americans, including roughly 600 Kentuckians, take their lives each year, and those numbers are growing. From 1999 to 2010, suicide rates in Kentucky rose 22 percent to 14.2 deaths per 100,000 residents. Indiana's rate rose 26 percent, to 13.1 per 100,000; the U.S. rate rose 15 percent, to 12.1 per 100,000.
-- Guns are used in about half of U.S. suicides, compared with 64 percent in Kentucky. And suicides involving firearms are fatal 85 percent of the time, compared with less than 3 percent for pills, according to the Harvard Injury Control Research Center.
-- Nine in 10 suicides are associated with mental illness, according to studies examining "psychiatric autopsies" of mental health history after death. But gun laws in Kentucky and Indiana allow all but a small fraction of the mentally ill to buy firearms from licensed dealers, or obtain them without restraints from family members, friends, gun shows or online.
-- For those who do survive a suicide attempt, studies show that 90 percent don't go on to die by their own hands later.
"Rage passes. Anxiety can calm," said Lanny Berman, executive director of the American Association of Suicidology. "Death doesn't lead to anywhere but death."
For Lepine, 45, suicidal feelings have subsided after he was diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder and began taking a new anti-psychotic medication. He asks relatives to keep their guns locked up when he is around, just in case his suicidal impulse returns.