Join our family of curious Kansas Citians

Discover unheard stories about Kansas City, every Thursday.

Thank you for subscribing!

Check your inbox, you should see something from us.

Sign Me Up

Excuse the interruption.

Like what you see? For more stories like this, sign up for our newsletter. It drops in your inbox every Thursday.

Thank you for subscribing!

Check your inbox, you should see something from us.

Sign Me Up
Hit enter to search or ESC to close

Forever 18: Uzi Pecina Seemed OK, But He Wasn’t

Experts Say To Curb Mental Health Stigma, Talk to Kids Earlier

Share this story
Above image credit: A Uzi Pecina (fotografiado) le encantaba viajar. Aquí se observa en Dallas, Texas. Un año después, falleció. (Facebook)

Leelo en español: Por siempre 18: Uzi Pecina aparentaba estar bien, pero no era así


Uzi Pecina had an infectious smile and impeccable style, a total sneakerhead. 

A musician, he listened to Reggaeton music – particularly Daddy Yankee – and played in his dad’s band, Trio Aztlan, and his own band, Theta Intellect. He was also a proud Mexican American. 

Uzi was just 18 years old the day he died by suicide. 

“Uzielito was this dynamo and…we didn’t see any pain, any anxiety,” said his father, Uzziel Pecina Sr. 

Pecina Sr. found him down a trail behind their house, the search prompted by a note Uzi left his kid brother that said, in part: “Dad knows where to find me. I’m really sorry.” 

“He was learning how to mask it, how to hide it,” Pecina Sr. said. 

“I Don’t Want to Be Here”

Uzi had suppressed his pain for years. 

When he was about four years old, fictional characters like Santa Claus and Chuck E. Cheese scared him. But his parents didn’t know those may have been early signs of anxiety, said his mom Adriana Pecina. Otherwise, he was a happy child. 

Then, when Uzi transferred to a new middle school, he withdrew from his siblings and holed up in his bedroom. This was familiar to Pecina Sr., who also had depression and anxiety growing up.

“It really took me out of school as a kid,” said Pecina Sr., who is a professor of music at the University of Missouri – Kansas City. His own parents told him to power through, so that’s what he advised, too. But Uzi responded with: “I don’t want to be here.”

That was the first time he conveyed he didn’t want to live. 

It wouldn’t come up again because he kept busy traveling and writing music with his bandmates and playing with his dad. Life went on and his mental health crisis symptoms were left unchecked. 

Mental health experts in Kansas City say signs like Uzi’s are often overlooked or misunderstood. At times parents assume their child is just sad or mad. But not talking about – or worse, shrugging off – the topic of mental health contributes to the taboo attached to depression or anxiety. 

Oscar Orozco, a social worker at Children’s Mercy, works with at-risk children on an almost daily basis. Many times, Orozco is the first person to ask kids about their feelings. Through conversation, he learns when to intervene and find children a therapist or other treatment. 

But he says childhood depression and anxiety is not being addressed soon enough.

“A lot of children we see right now coming into our emergency rooms (are) made to believe they can’t talk about what’s going on in their head … what they’re feeling,” he said.  

Missing signs of crises early in childhood can snowball into severe depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, or behavioral outbursts, he said. Additionally, Orozco says, a lack of access to mental health resources and education compounds the problem even further.  

While white communities have the highest prevalence of mental illness, Asian, black and Latino groups are least likely to seek help because of cultural and social stigmas. (Infographic | Josh Boston)

Symptoms in children – from three years old to teens – can hide in plain sight, ranging from stomach aches to sluggish behavior, said Trista Perez-Crawford, a pediatric psychologist at Children’s Mercy. She added that it is crucial to talk to children at an earlier age so they know it is OK to express they’re sad, angry or anxious.  

Normalizing mental health talks, even with young ones, will help curb the stigma that getting help is embarrassing or a sign of weakness. Ask about their day or if they want to talk about things that were difficult that week to spark conversation. 

“What we know is actually (minority communities are) having more of these depressive and anxiety type behaviors at a younger age than the majority community,” she said. “It’s something we need to be talking about.” 

Suicide awareness has clinched headlines as teen suicides continue to increase, nationwide and in the Kansas City metro area, prompting movements like Zero Reasons Why. Roughly 14% of children ages 4 to 14 have a mental illness such as anxiety or depression and the rates of anxiety and depression in children have steadily increased in the past few years.  

It’s affecting minority populations at an increasing rate, too. A recent study by the American Psychological Association found that middle school-aged Latinos have higher rates of depression. While minority and immigrant youth are particularly prone to depression, they are more reluctant to seek help. 

“The level of depressive symptoms for all of the Latino students in the study already was higher than average, possibly because of discrimination against the Latino community,” said the lead researcher Zachary Giano, a post-doctoral fellow at Oklahoma State University.

(Infographic | Josh Boston)

Tension points included deportations and the increase of racially-based incidents such as harassment or violent crimes. In the past five years, “person-directed” hate crimes rose by almost 27%, according to the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism

This particular statistic affected the Pecinas, who are Mexican American. 

“Broken”

In 2016, Uzi enlisted in the Army Reserves. 

Pecina Sr., who is also an Army Reservist, thought it’d be a good program for his son, so when Uzi was still a senior in high school, they began the application process. Though he knew how tough training could be, he worried more about his son getting asthma than his mental health. 

Uz Pecina (center) posted this photo with his sergeants on Facebook with the caption: “June 14 is the U.S. Army’s 241st anniversary. Also so happens to be the same day i ship off to Basic Training.”

Uzi left for basic training in June 2016. He’d talk to his mom and dad when he could, sharing that he’d get picked on for his culture and ethnicity. Then he came back. That’s when the family noticed something was wrong.

“When you go away you don’t realize how valuable your culture is,” his mom, Adriana Pecina, said, as her voice quivered and right hand clenched a tissue. 

“He came back broken,” Pecina Sr. said, crying. 

Looking back now, they didn’t realize that life transitions and isolation could cause their son to spiral back into the deep depression and anxiety that peppered his childhood. 

But they didn’t know how to talk to their kids about suicide, or how to address the symptoms. 

“We never asked clearly: ‘Do you mean suicide?’ We didn’t get that in the parent manual. My own parents never brought it up – they just said don’t do it,” Pecina Sr. said. 

So today, they focus on helping others – friends and strangers – in the Kansas City community whenever they need someone to talk to, hold their hand or provide resources they didn’t have before Uzi’s death. 

As a professor at the University of Missouri – Kansas City, Pecina Sr. hands out bright green rubber bracelets with “#DoItForUzi” and list suicide prevention hotline, 1-800-273-TALK. 

And Adriana says sharing Uzi’s story, his silent struggle, helps her heal and give hope to others who might have been in his shoes. 

“We share our story in the hopes to save lives,” Adriana said.

“We also want to share a message of love and hope and assure grieving families that you can live a ‘new normal.’ Your loved one will always live within you. … This world is a better place because of our son, Uziel Melgoza Pecina Jr.”

Pecina Sr. hands out these bracelets to students, friends and acquaintances so people know they are not alone. (Vicky Diaz-Camacho | Flatland)

Resources You Need to Know About:

+ Most employers have an Employee Assistance Program (EAP). It is a voluntary, work-based program that offers free and confidential assessments, short-term counseling, referrals and follow-up services to employees who have personal and/or work-related problems.  (Check with your employer for details.)

+ Solace House is a center for grief and healing that supports children, individuals and families who have been affected by the death of a loved one, whether anticipated or sudden and unexpected. Call: 913-341-0318

“I seek strength to carry on. I seek courage to move beyond pain. I seek faith to believe happiness will come again. Solace is my goal. I can find it. I can help others discover it.” — Solace House Affirmation

+ Crossroads Hospice offers multiple support group opportunities within a 60-mile radius. Please contact Jeff O’Dell for group locations. Call: 816-268-2634 or 1-888-603-6673

+ Crossroads Hospice offers multiple support group opportunities within a 60-mile radius. Please contact Jeff O’Dell for group locations. Call: 816-268-2634 or 1-888-603-6673

+ The Emergency Room can be a great last resort when you know you or someone you know are in danger and need immediate assistance.  All you have to say when you check in is that you are having suicidal thoughts and are in danger of hurting yourself. They will see you immediately.

+ If you or someone you love call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline 1-800-273-TALK (8255); en Español: 1-888-628-9454; Deaf and Hard of Hearing: 1-800-799-4889. It’s free, confidential and open 24/7.

+ Or, if you’re a veteran in crisis or a concerned friend and family member you can call or text the Veterans Crisis Line and Military Crisis Line at 1-800-273-8255 and press 1

+ When you’re in a moment of crisis, talking isn’t always the preferred method so if you need to chat with someone, text the Crisis Text Line at 741-741

Like what you are reading?

Discover more unheard stories about Kansas City, every Thursday.

Thank you for subscribing!

Check your inbox, you should see something from us.

Enter Email

One thought on “Forever 18: Uzi Pecina Seemed OK, But He Wasn’t

  1. I appreciate the courage of Uzi’s parents in sharing their story. It has and will continue to make a difference and save lives.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *