These posts are the opinions of the writers and do not necessarily reflect the views of A+ Colorado.

Jack Strong: Lessons from Rick Padilla, a City of Denver leader who pivoted his work to teen suicide prevention after the loss of his son to suicide.

The pandemic has revealed many of our society’s frailties. One of which is the issue of mental health. Mental health is a topic that resonates with many now more than ever. With record-high unemployment numbers due to the closing of businesses, to health concerns, and grieving those that many have lost due to the virus.  Students have new stresses since the start of the pandemic —From the change of daily routine, missing friends, lack of socioemotional development  — to athletics being canceled and of course, testing. 

A+ Colorado has been tackling the importance of mental health in schools through research and advocacy during the pandemic. 

A+’s findings on mental health support in schools 

Most recently A+ Colorado’s Director of Research, Eden Morrison testified at Denver Public Schools Budget Advisory Committee meeting, recommending DPS maintain a commitment to use trauma-informed practices to support mental health needs of students and hiring mental health counselors as part of a pilot program in select DPS Schools. Our communications team partnered with Our Turn, an organization that supports student advocacy, to share stories of students who experienced mental health issues in school and could speak to the needs. We published Access to mental health services in Denver Schools: Recommendations for mental health funding in DPS, which looks at data compiled from Denver Public schools. Some key findings were:

  • 15% of schools have adequate staffing of social workers
  • 35% of schools have adequate staffing of nurses 
  • 60% of schools have adequate staffing of school psychologists
  • 39,000 students attend a school that is poorly staffed by mental health professionals
  • 1.5% of schools are fully staffed by mental health professionals 

Our work to bring awareness to this important issue caught Rick Padilla’s eye. Padilla is a Suicide Prevention Administrator within the Denver Department of Public Health & Environment and has been working tirelessly to bring more awareness to the topic of mental health in schools after losing his son, Jack, to suicide in 2019. He has organized Jack Strong 17, a youth group that discusses mental health in schools from the lens of a student and is a huge advocate of student voice. 

Denver’s Suicide Prevention Administrator was drawn to the work after losing his son to suicide 

Born and raised in Denver, Rick Padilla attended University of Colorado Denver and later moved to Kansas to attend law school, after another large personal loss changed his life path. “Right when I graduated about the time my brother passed away, I decided I needed a change, so I moved to western Kansas, to start a juvenile diversion program keeping first-time offending kids out of the system,” Padilla said.

“I’d also been in undergrad school, protective service work, for three years investigated child abuse and neglect. I was a relief house parent in a group home for adolescent boys that had been removed from their home and put into a group facility.”

Padilla felt like affordable housing was his calling, so he delved deeply into working for underprivileged communities through work with community organizations. 

That’s really where my interest was, affordable housing. I did that for a few years, it was really boring. So I decided to try something else and went to work for a large national nonprofit called Neighborworks America. Neighborworks America is a congressionally chartered nonprofit. They have over 300 community-based partners from Community Development Corporation, like Our Service Heroes, and Chicanos Por la Casa.” Padilla said 

In Colorado, Padilla focused on his career and his family. Along with his wife Janine, they raised two sons together. The youngest, Jack Padilla, reminded him a lot of himself as a child. 

“They probably called me ornery and probably other words when I was in high school, but we noticed a lot with kids like Jack and finally got it diagnosed,” he said. 

Padilla describes the phone calls from the school that would be about Jack “pulling a little girls hair,” being a disruption in the classroom. He was evaluated both by the school and a child psychologist, and was diagnosed with ADHD. 

“So in schools, historically, what we’ve learned through our experience, at least at that time, how they deal with those kids is very different in most instances, is not, in my opinion, a compassionate way to address a kid that may have that. Sticking them at the front of the room, so they will constantly be facing the wall,” Padilla said. “They get ridiculed, it impacts self esteem, and we start to see that with Jack.” 

“Bullying escalated and even became acts of hate.” 

Jack began to experience bullying behaviors at a young age and continued throughout his time in schools.

The experiences with bullying escalated and even became acts of hate. As a young man of color, in a middle-class school and neighborhood, Jack experienced prejudice and discrimination.  

“We had to move Jack to a different school. We had a lot of instances like this. We had a move out of the fourth grade to a different school, because there was a group of white parents. I went to a school board meeting, this couple gets up, I’ve never met before in my life. They’re complaining about a fourth-grader who’s been bullying kids, and what the school is going to do about it. Really, some nasty stuff they were saying,” he said. Padilla realized they were talking about his son. “It’s an upper-class community, and we’re the first brown family of color in our community.

Padilla said that when Trump was elected president, the discrimination in their community escalated. In addition to hearing neighbors saying racist slurs about Mexican Americans, the family had one of their windows shot out. 

“They targeted Jack. We know that on one particular instance, these four guys surrounded Jack and Jack wasn’t going to back down from them. He had a friend with him who got a little nervous, but Jack wasn’t going to back down. These guys pushed him on the ground, spit on him and kicked him. That’s apparently when he came home and said he wanted to kill somebody. He was so angry that he started hitting the heavy bag. Some of the rejects passed,” Padilla said. 

He describes looking at his son’s phone and reading racist slurs and threats from class members. 

“This girl before he attempted to take his life, text him saying they’re having a sale on ropes at Home Depot. So it was just some of the horrible stuff that just surfaced and then he was in the hospital.” 

Jack died by suicide in 2019, and within the immense grief, his death highlighted some glaring gaps as it relates to mental health in schools for Padilla.

It all starts with stigma 

Padilla believes there are three vital items that need to be addressed starting with the issue of stigma.

“Number one is the issue of stigma. How we have stigmatized mental health in this country, and because of that, the youth and adults will not seek out help, and if you don’t seek out the help, kids are more inclined to talk about it.” 

The second item that needs to be addressed urgently is access to services. 

“With that, access to services, and particularly, it was extremely hard to find a clinician that Jack connected with. Not a lot of brown and black clinicians out there. That was extremely hard. We fortunately had insurance. But it’s still hard to find clinicians that will accept insurance payments, because reimbursement rate is so low as compared to medical reimbursements. So you’re constantly looking for a clinician, and a clinician that will  work for your person, and then paying for those. I think those are issues of access. Whether it’s access to an individual clinician, whether it’s access to a bed, I was talking to Health One, they just built a new facility,  32 new beds there. They don’t have any beds available.” 

Lastly, the third and final item that needs to improve to support students better as it relates to mental health is staff training in schools. 

“Within the school system itself,  the kids will tell you this quite clearly. You don’t have counselors that have been trained in suicide prevention and awareness, and what suicidal ideations are or trauma informed care.  Trauma, if a kid comes from a household where a family member has died from COVID, or from a homicide, or dad or mom’s been locked up? That’s traumatic, there’s PTSD, their schools aren’t equipped, and they’re not putting the resources adequately, in my opinion to address that. The school counselor, who has to assume those duties, is trained to help academically; they’re not necessarily trained to deal with mental and behavioral health issues of kids. I think that the numbers are far too inferior and the ratios of trained counselors, and the number of kids. If we look at what we spent, and I’m an advocate of sports, I think it’s good for kids. If you look at what we’re spending on sports, as well, compared to what we’re spending on mental health, it is deplorable.  I think about schools like Cherry Creek High School, they just got a $32 million or $60 million mill levy increase. You know what they want to do with some of the money?, they want to build a freestanding mental health facility for high school for kids to go to.  I’ve talked to some kids. How many high school kids are going to want to say they’re not feeling well and go into that building. They’re not going to do it.”

Padilla not only wants to bring light to the issue but also provide potential solutions. One thing we can all do with our children is begin to build resiliency. 

“I think, first and foremost is building resilience in our kids in elementary school. I mean, kids will be kids and they will say and do mean things to one another. But we have to teach our kids how to be resilient and have the skills to move past that because ultimately what happens, they don’t have that resiliency, it impacts their self-esteem, their self-worth. They get ridiculed, they can be labeled bullies because they’re acting out because people are mean to them. So they’re gonna act out. I think resiliency and I’m talking about within our schools, resiliency for our kids. “

When asked, Padilla said his hope for and his goal for his work was: “This is going to be a very simple answer, but I’ll articulate some more about it. Saving a life. It’s quite simple to me.”

Connect with Rick’s work  

To connect with Rick, and potentially have him speak with your organization or school, email You can learn more about the Office of Suicide Prevention in Denver here

You can follow his advocacy campaign, Teens2Teens on YouTube, follow the Jack 17 Strong organization here

Call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255), or contact the Crisis Text Line by texting TALK to 741741.