Session 6: “Why have you forsaken me?” - Suicide

Aim:. This session will focus on the causes which lead to suicide and how it relates to the loss of faith seen in the other sessions' issues. As this may be the most common and immediate life and death matter for teens, it is important to have built up a solid foundation and a safe environment for discussion. Many participants will have had thoughts of suicide, and sometimes some may have attempted it themselves or known another who has. Students should learn the power of loving one another and the Church as a source of support and love for those who are caught in despair. Again, humility is to be put forward as a path for healing. If any of your teens show warning signs of suicide, do not hesitate to take action.

Objectives: Students at the end of this session should be able to . . .

1. Identify the causes of suicide and the warning signs that someone is suicidal;

2. Be familiar with the Church's teaching on suicide and despair, and hope;

3. Know the local support centers and suicide hotlines.

Useful Texts:

Psalms 3, 38, 63, 88, 103, 143

Psalms 6, 13, 16, 20, 23, 86, 91

Jer 29:11-14

Isaiah 40:28-31


Art supplies and materials for making masks


I. Opening Prayer

II. Check-In and Review

III. Activity #1: Warning Signs

IV. Activity #2: Masks and Icons

V. Activity #3: Managing Depression

VI. Conclusions

VII. Closing Prayer

I. Opening Prayer

II. Check-In: If you were going to be depicted in an Icon, how would you want to be portrayed?


1. What are three models of Christ like forgiveness and humility?

2. What are three prayers of forgiveness that we pray in the Orthodox Church?

III. Activity #1: Warning Signs

Time: 15-20 minutesPurpose: Participants learn to identify the signs of suicidal depression in others and what they need to know before attempting to help someone in that situation. This activity will also attempt to address the spiritual dynamics of despair and its relationship to repentance.

Begin by dividing into small groups.

Suicide is a serious problem. Here are some statistics, as of 1996:

Approximately 3 out of 4 teens have thought about suicide.

About 1 out of 4 have tried it.
1 out of 4 teens have seriously contemplated suicide just this year.

7 out of 10 teens know someone who has attempted suicide.

Suicide is the 3rd leading cause of death amongst individuals 15-24.
Suicide is the 5th leading cause of death amongst children 5-14.
Suicide is the 9th overall cause of death amongst all Americans.
In the U.S., more people are killed by themselves than by other people.

Figures like these abound. But it doesn’t have to be this way. We weren’t meant to be this way.

You may want to have them check these statistics in their groups, if they are willing to talk about it this early, or wait until the end of the activity or the session to see how they match up to national averages. Otherwise continue by asking questions and having groups make a list of their answers.

What reasons do people have for committing or contemplating suicide? [Feelings of loss, depression, despair, hopelessness, disappointment, failure, loneliness, isolation.]

What are some of the factors that contribute to suicide? What increases a person’s chances of attempting suicide? [Alcoholism, drug abuse, or other addiction in self or family, loss of a loved one, broken families, the break-up of a romantic relationship, inability to relate to peers and or family, inability to express feelings, child abuse, criminal activity, a suicide in the family, history of depression in family.]

What are the immediate warning signs of an impending suicide? [talk or threats of suicide, talking about hopelessness; a previous attempt at suicide; preoccupation with death and dying; having a suicide plan, making final arrangements; dramatic changes in appetite; sleeping difficulties; loss of energy, hope, or concentration; confusion and difficulty in thinking; increased drug, sex, or alcohol use; excessive risk-taking; school problems, sudden changes in behavior or dress; constant feelings of worthlessness and self-hatred.]

After each group has completed these questions, ask for their answers and make a comprehensive list on the board. They should keep their lists for later (Activity #3).

Very often, the warning signs are visible to those surrounding a suicidal person, but they often refuse to see them. 3 of 4 people who complete suicide sought medical help within the last three months of their lives. 80% talked about it, but no one took them seriously enough. 80% of those who attempt suicide make repeat attempts.

Why would parents, friends, and teachers be tempted to overlook the warning signs of suicide? [Denial of feelings of fear, incompetence, powerlessness, embarrassment, failure, pain and frustration; Disbelief in the seriousness of teens suicide; Inability to listen to the needs of others; Belief that such moods are just passing phases; Desire to not intrude on a person’s privacy; etc.]

What are some immediate steps that we should take when we see these warning signs in our friends or family members? [Get help; Get the suicidal person help, preferably professional; Do not hesitate to jump at a false alarm; talk to that person; assure them of your love, the reality of their emotions, the value of their life, and hope in their ability to get past what depresses them; don’t leave them alone or give them the opportunity to carry out their plan.]

What are some steps we can take when we see these warning signs in ourselves and contemplate suicide ourselves? [Talk to someone! Get help! If parents are no help, seek help from someone who cares and that you can trust; call a hotline; pray to God when the feelings arise. Sometimes approaching parents can be counter-productive, especially when those parents lack parenting and communication skills. A poor response might just reinforce the teen’s feelings of hopelessness and despair.]

At this point you should share with your group the number of local suicide prevention centers and other resources that they can draw upon. Many suicidally depressed people do not really know where to go for help or even how to ask for help. By providing participants with a list of local resources, it can provide them with life-saving information.

When talking about suicide, we must realize that we are not alone. The majority of us have contemplated or will contemplate suicide seriously in our lifetime. It is better to talk about it with each other than let it build. God wants us to give our sorrow to Him, and to call upon Him in times of distress. When those around us fail to support us or treat us with the kindness we need, it is God that we fall back on. God works in mysterious ways, often showing His love through caring individuals whom we do not expect to find. There is always help out there for us!

IV. Activity #2: Masks and Icons

Time: 30 minutes

Purpose: Trying to help people mired in suicidal despair is one of the most challenging forms of ministry. There are many do’s and don’ts. This activity uses non-verbal role-playing to simulate some of the challenges, without making it seem too difficult. Bringing someone out of despair requires the work of more than one caring friend, even though that one friend can make the difference.

Stay in small groups, and provide arts and crafts materials for each group. In this activity, participants will be making face masks. The cheapest base for a mask is a paper plate or something similar. You can use construction paper, tissue, paints, markers, an so on to decorate the masks. If you really want to take the time and give a full mask workshop in addition to this activity. For beginners, start simple! If you don’t have the time or materials, you can opt to go without masks. Just follow the guidelines of the talk and the game. After all, our human faces are the most expressive “icons” we have!

Most of us at one point or another think about suicide. Or we go through a time of deep depression, perhaps for one of the reasons we discussed. In an earlier session, we talked about the “deflated self.”

Looking back in your journals, what are some the reasons we can become “deflated?” [Feelings of loss, disappointment, failure, worthlessness, hopelessness.]

What images of ourselves do we have when we are “deflated?” [I’m a loser, fat, ugly, stupid, unloved, unlikeable, etc.]

How do suicidal feelings and despair fit into the world of the “balloon people”? [When we believe that our true selves are the “deflated” image, we have feel that we have less to lose by killing ourselves.]

When we are “deflated” and when we are suicidal, we are not really completely ourselves. It is as if we had put a mask of despair over our souls to keep us from seeing who we really are: living icons of God. To simulate this effect in our lives, create a mask with two sides.

The first side is the mask of despair: this is the icon of your “deflated self,” so to speak. What is the face you put on when you are low. If you were feeling suicidal, what kind of image would your soul see in a mirror? In making your mask of despair, be as creative as you wish. Express the face of depression in whatever way is true for you.

The flip side of the mask is the hidden, secret self that we have in our hearts. In a previous session, we discussed the prayer of the heart. When we pray from our heart, we connect to our body’s center and our spirit’s center. It is in our hearts that we find the kingdom of heaven — our source of eternal joy.

What feelings are inspired when you connect to your heart?

What excites joy inside your heart?

What are the images that you can express on your mask that, like an icon, lead to sources of healing from sorrow?

As you create your masks, think about how these faces relate to your life. When do you “wear” these faces? Do you show them to anyone or are they kept inside? What “face” does our soul have that reflects the likeness of God?

Make double-sided masks: one side depicts the emotions of despair and the images we individually associate with it. The reverse depicts the inner life of joy within each of us through images that inspire joy, hope, trust, and love. Take as long as you need to make masks. Some people will be more artistically inclined than others. If they have problem capturing details, try to have them capture mood through colors and shapes. Masks will be limited by what materials you have as well, so be prepared.

Now that we have our masks, we are ready to use them. In small groups, take turns exploring what it means to wear these masks. When wearing the mask of despair, one of you becomes the “desperate one” — that person who has fallen into a deep depression and needs help to get out of it before it grows worse. Meanwhile, the rest of your group become the “joyful” ones that God has sent to help cheer you up. When the “desperate ones” feel joy stirring in the heart and feel the despair lift, they should turn their masks around and give someone else a chance.

In each group, set aside a one person to wear the despair mask (“the desperate one”) and have the rest of the group wear their joy masks (“the joyful ones”). The “desperate one” must act as if they are the one who is deeply depressed, exploring their own feelings by doing so.

The “joyful ones” have the job of trying to persuade that person to turn their mask around to the joyful side. They must also be in character and express the things that uplift and transform despair into joy. You may have to set some ground rules as to what is allowable. For example, “joyful” are not allowed to touch a person in any inappropriate way such as shoving, wrestling, or tickling, or pulling their masks off, even though these might all legitimately change a person’s mood from despair (to annoyance or anger!) Hugging or a pat on the shoulder are generally okay — but not when a whole gang of people are swamping your space!

As soon as a person switches from despair to joy, another person takes a turn at being the “desperate one.” Play until each persona has had a turn as “desperate one.” If any one person should get stuck in the role or refuse switch their mask, you can play the role of “divine intervention” to keep things moving. Don’t be afraid to let the activity degenerate into a “make me laugh” game — this activity is about finding joy in life in the face of hopelessness.

To make the exercise even more challenging, “joyful” are not allowed to speak (may not use words), but “desperate ones” may speak. Very often we try to talk people out of depression. But words are primarily intellectual and do not always get to the heart. Falling back on simple sounds, gestures, and body language speaks to the heart in a more fundamental way. This also teaches us that how we talk to depressed people is just as important as, if not more than what we say. When each group is finished, have them answer the following questions.

When you are finished, discuss the following questions with your group members:

What did it feel like to be the “desperate one”?

What was it that changed your despair into joy?

When playing the part of a “joyful one”, what did you draw upon to find joy in yourself and in the “desperate ones?”

What challenges did you face working together as a team?

What did you learn about helping someone who is suicidal, or at least, very depressed?

In your journals, write down as many ways you can help bring joy into another person’s life. Brainstorm with your group for more ideas. Keep these for the end of the session.

V. Activity #3: Managing Despair

Time: 15-20 minutesPurpose: The greatest treatment for suicidal depression and the sadness that comes when we lose a friend to suicide is a healthy dose of life. This activity is an attempt to provide practical, uplifting ways for teens to understand and manage depression before it turns self-destructive.

The ascetic fathers of our Church (Monks of the Desert such as St. Anthony, St. John of the Ladder, etc.) recognized a strange truth in their struggles with the temptation and sin. They realized that despair can become a passion, much like gluttony, lust, and pride. While feelings of sadness and depression comes to us throughout life and can actually help lead us to God, there are also times when these feelings become sources of sin. These are the times when sadness becomes despair.

How do you think depression can become sinful? [It becomes a habit; We lose faith in God’s mercy and goodness; We give up on ourselves and our salvation; We begin to turn against ourselves and our God. Judas and Saul and examples of suicides who in their despair had turned against God. Despair often follows other passions and sins when we do not repent of them.]

A suicidal person often suffers from despair. But telling a person that their feelings are sinful when they are already feeling worthless is not a very good way to help them. If we think of sin as spiritual illness, though, we begin to see how we can approach a suicidal person. Despair is a spiritual illness which needs spiritual medicine.

One of the things we can and should do when we are in despair to break the downward spiral is pray. The Church shows us how to pray by giving us spiritual words.

Divide into three groups. Look at the psalms from the Matins service, beginning with the psalms of repentance. Answer the first set of questions, first in groups and then as a whole, and then move on to the second set or psalms and questions. For a larger group, divide into six groups (one psalm per group) and assign questions accordingly, or draw from the second set of psalms listed in the “Useful Texts” section of this session. You should be familiar with these psalms before hand.

Psalm 38, 88, 143: Matins Psalms of Repentance

Psalm 3, 63, 103: Matins Psalms of Praise

How can we relate these psalms of repentance to the despair of suicidal depression? [These psalms describe the feelings we have when seriously depressed. They represent deep cries for relief from sorrow and provide us with God-inspired words with which to express and release our feelings.]

Who or what is the enemy spoken of in these psalms? [The enemy can be understood as the demons of despair, especially the thoughts of hopelessness and images of death that tempt us to take our lives. We are under attack by depression which is an illness of the soul.]

What do you think “Your wrath” — God’s wrath— means in Ps. 38 and 88? How do experience God’s “wrath” when in suicidal depression? [God’s wrath is His love, which we experience as painful when we harden our hearts in despair. The pain of depression comes from fighting back the tears and holding in our emotions. The sin of despair comes from our willing rejection of God’s ever-present love which then burns instead of healing. God is not hateful of us — such an idea is a lie of the enemy that can lead us to further despair.]

Some of these psalms do not demonstrate any “resolution” or “answer” to the sorrow of the Psalmist? Why do you think that is? [This refers to Psalm 38 and 88, among others. Our cry to God is the first solution. When we give to God what afflicts us and call upon Him for help, we are released from our ailment and open up to God’s forgiveness. This is the key to confession.]

These psalms of repentance may seem familiar to you. They are three of the “Six Psalms” that begin a Matins service. The other three that they are paired with are not as oriented towards repentance but towards praise. Instead of suffering, they focus on joy and victory over sorrows. These are Psalms 3, 63, and 103.

How can we relate these psalms to suicidal depression? [They reflect the hope and joy that we need in our lives to fight despair. They give images of victory over affliction.]

How do they differ from the psalms of repentance? [They do not end on a cry for help but on a praising of God. The imagery brings us through the darkness into the light.]

Why are these also examples of prayers we should say when faced with despair? [They remind us that we are not alone and that God helps us and saves us. They return us to joy in the Lord.

Ironically, praise and repentance and two of the greatest medicines we have for dealing with despair. By redirecting our attention to God, we avoid falling into the traps of the “balloon people” of session 1: becoming deflated or inflated. In repentance we let go and release the sorrows that afflict us inside. In praise we restore our confidence in our life, not through pride but through God, the true source of life. Our personal prayer is the front line in our battle against the spiritual illness of suicidal despair.

What sacraments of the Church are oriented towards repentance and the healing of spiritual sickness? [All of them! In particular, Unction and Confession.]

Earlier we spoke of the importance of sharing our feelings when we are depressed. How can confession be a means of healing depression? [We have someone to talk to who will listen to us and give us guidance and support. We are assured through confession of God’s love. Despair builds when we do not confess our sins and no longer believe in or seek God’s forgiving love.]

Why is it important to go to confession when suicidal thoughts arise? [Such thoughts are often tied to unconfessed sins that lead us to feeling worthless or unlovable. We should also go to our spiritual father to find out what we can do about these feelings. We also need a spiritual father’s discernment to learn what is the cause of our suffering in order to effectively fight it.]

Besides the Book of Psalms and the sacrament of Confession, there are many additional ways in which we can manage depression and keep it from becoming despair. Feeling sad is not a sin. In fact, the spiritual fathers of the Church teach that tears are a second baptism, when they come from the heart and lead us back to God. They call us to even pray for tears — that we can open our hearts and not hold back anything from God.

VI. Session Conclusion


What are some important warning signs of suicide?

What should you do if someone you know shows warning signs of suicide?

In groups, brainstorm as many ideas as you can for healthy ways to manage depression. By healthy, we mean those that do not promote self-destruction such as suicide, drugs/alcohol (other than drugs prescribed by a medical doctor), etc. Begin with the lists they generated in the mask exercise for bringing joy into a darkened life. Finish by making a top ten list of techniques for managing depression. Prepare the list as a review for the next session.

Bring to the next session a small object or item to give as a gift. This object can symbolize something that you have gotten out of this study unit, something that renews your joy in life, or something that inspired you during our time together, that you can pass on to one of your brothers or sisters in Christ. Gifts are to be small and symbolic, not great expenditures. It is even better if they can make it themselves. Be prepared to bring extra gifts in case someone forgets.

VII. Closing Prayer : You may wish to include Psalm 23 or a similar psalm of hope.