“The straw that broke the camel’s back”. It’s a wonderful old expression with a suggestion that it comes from the middle east, perhaps way back in the development of human society. And it resonates with a huge problem we face today; suicide.

This subject has been covered in the Cambrian News in recent weeks by Chris Betteley and the editor, and Roger Louvet’s eloquent letter. It also gets much attention in national newspapers.

The recent tragedy of a suicide in a young girl at a top private school in England confirms that this issue transcends culture, social class and financial wellbeing, and perhaps most importantly politics.

We are all subject to this issue, at risk of it striking our family or close friends. And when it does we all (rightly) feel a sense of regret or even shame for things we did, or failed to do.

In truth, we have a mental health epidemic that threatens to engulf us, and it is particularly impacting on the young. It seems to have started a long time pre-Covid, but there is no doubt that the unintended consequences of lockdown have made matters worse. This also seems to be a particular problem in (young) men. Seventy four per cent of suicide deaths in the UK are in men. Suicide is the single commonest cause of death in men under 50.

Forty years ago, motorbikes were the biggest killer of young men. The fact that suicide has taken over reflects badly on the society that we have allowed to evolve, and it is high time that we do something about it. It’s not right to expect our police officers to deal with mental health crises (which they often do admirably well) for which they are neither trained, equipped or resourced.

Mental health is a health issue and it needs to be resourced properly just like trauma care or cancer care. But, even if there were no financial constraints, it takes at least 15 years to turn a medical student into a consultant psychiatrist, so the cavalry isn’t coming over the hill any time soon. Perhaps more importantly, that is a reactive approach to this crisis. And not infrequently, suicide strikes out of the blue, with no obvious warning signs. So perhaps it is time to get proactive and look at what we can do, as a society, to change things for the better.

Roger Louvet courageously points out that when a (big) financial straw nearly broke him, rediscovering his faith helped him overcome despair. In Western society we have perhaps too readily turned away from religion, but there is no doubt that for some people, religious support will be invaluable.

Mick O’Reilly, the editor of Cambrian News, highlighted the invaluable role a group of friends can provide with a podcast, encouraging men to talk about their issues, helping to unload those straws off their backs, one by one. Groups like that are important for older men (and women), and perhaps especially for veterans with PTSD related mental health problems. The latter are a group deserving of great sympathy and support.

But there are some big elephants in this particular room, and we need to confront them.

Most children (let’s bin the PC drivel, because they are children, and they need guidance and protection) starting secondary school carry in their hand far more computing and communication power than NASA had when it put Neil and Buzz on the Moon.

In so many ways smartphones are a fantastic asset. But there are downsides too.

The speed of communication can be overwhelming, online abuse and bullying too easy, with every mistake, misfortune or foolhardy act finding its way into the public domain almost in real time and coming back to haunt and torment. Decent sleep is critical for the developing human brain; so when the pings and flashes don’t stop the asset becomes a nightmare.

“Influencers” may drive totally unrealistic expectations that in turn lead to low self-esteem. Likewise, they, and online pornography can promote “toxic masculinity” leading to misogyny and an expectation of sex that is wholly divorced from emotion and mutual respect, leave alone love. The fallout from this somewhat inevitably will be profound unhappiness and perhaps mental anguish affecting both girls and boys.

Plenty of experts link the rise in adolescent mental health issues to the widespread availability of smart phones. It is beyond belief that with parental demand, educational support, political will and tech know how, that we can’t manage this better. The hand wringing needs to stop and the action needs to start.

At some point, children become adults. We define this as age 18. A lot of young people leave home for the first time then, to work or study. Many will do just fine meeting new friends and making the transition to independent adults. But some won’t, and a few will die by their own hand. One suicide is one too many.

How often do we hear that universities knew a student had problems, but couldn’t or wouldn’t share these with their family because of “medical confidentiality”?

Of course people (even below 18 years old) are entitled to medical confidentiality, but we must empower intelligent professionals to do first and foremost what is right for these young people. Worrying about medical confidentiality seems pretty irrelevant if you are organising a funeral for a young suicide victim. There is room for common sense here, perhaps asking students to agree in advance to waive some rights in extreme circumstances.

Illegal drugs are a huge problem when it comes to mental health. Some people can dabble in and out of drugs with no obvious immediate problems (they probably emerge later). But even a one off foray into drug abuse can tip others into catastrophic mental illness, presenting with an acute psychosis and incurable paranoid schizophrenia. If you have witnessed this you will know how it destroys young people, turning them into a mental shell, and tearing their family apart. These are the people who can suddenly turn violent, committing homicide or suicide through diminished responsibility.

Less spectacular will be the gradual onset of mental illness, preventing young people reaching their potential and setting them up for life’s misfortunes. This sews a fertile field for self- harm and suicide. We have got to stop the casual acceptance of drug usage.

It’s time to make a hard decision here. Either we decriminalise drugs and regulate their legal use accepting that this will cause some to suffer psychiatric (and physical) consequences. This would require a very strong educational input so that whilst those indulging would not be criminalised, they would need to be made very clearly aware of the potential consequences.

Or, we decide this isn’t acceptable and demand that our politicians deploy the full force of the law, to “run this problem out of town”. The people who organise drug smuggling and distribution, profiting from the misery they inflict on our young people, should be seen as committing crimes against humanity, and they should go to prison for whole life terms and all their assets should be confiscated. I don’t believe in capital punishment, but if the violence these people happily deploy against the most vulnerable got repaid with interest by our security forces, I wouldn’t shed too many tears.

In trying to solve the drugs problem we demonise gangs. If that’s a County Lines gang, then fair enough. But teenage boys (as one of three brothers and a father of two sons, I’m not qualified to write about girls) need to learn to spread their wings and start to fly the nest.

Boys want to “belong” and to be part of a group. That’s why I think most if not all boys need to be in a gang. But it needs to be a good gang.

For many (not all) boys, organised sport provides a good gang. A good coach is a great role model. Peer pressure (as the All Blacks say: “no dickheads”) can be far more influential than authority, and in a beneficial way. There is a controlled outlet for competition and aggression. Being part of a team is such an important life lesson, learning that what you get out depends on what you put in, and that a good team is stronger than the sum of its individuals. I have never known man or boy who doesn’t get a positive buzz out of that.

We know sport is positive for physical and mental health. Many of our community football teams (to take one example of good gangs) are struggling post Covid; struggling to get players back and to remain financially viable. But never have they been more important. If they fold, they won’t come back. The same is true of other community led organisations. They all need as much support as possible both financially and in terms of participation.

Charities enjoy VAT relief. Many community groups (good gangs) don’t have the resources to register as a charity. It’s hard to believe that genuine not-for profit community organisations couldn’t be identified and given VAT exemption on core projects. Take for example a sports club trying to develop training facilities to expand youth participation; 20 per cent VAT adds a potentially show stopping cost to everything.

Likewise planning consent. This is complex, time consuming and potentially very costly, involving multiple local and national government organisations. It can be overwhelming. Fair enough to put a developer who is going to make a big profit go through these hoops.

But is it beyond us to make this process easier for community groups pursuing projects that will give our young people something positive in life? A proactive planning process could identify good projects and then do all it could to help. Levelling up money could so easily be used to help with costs too.

Really what we need is for all levels of government to cut the good gangs some serious slack.

It’s clear that boys are falling behind girls at school, and with suicide being a male dominated tragedy, we can’t ignore that any longer. This means that girls are now far more likely to join professions such as medicine or indeed teaching. Some complain that education is becoming “feminised”. There may be an element of truth in that, but we need to ensure that the pendulum doesn’t swing back the other way, with women being treated as second-class citizens.

I think that in our pursuit of sex equality, we have lost sight of the fact that girls and boys are different. We can’t legislate against billions of years of evolution or undo the “hard wiring” in boys’ brains. We need to run with it.

Teenage boys want to look “cool”. Being seen to work hard at school isn’t perceived to be cool. It’s all too easy for that to become a self-fulfilling downward spiral; doors get closed and opportunity is lost. This may not have mattered when there were plenty of (male-dominated) jobs which didn’t need formal educational qualification, and brought in a steady, dependable wage. But those jobs aren’t coming back.

Research suggests that both sexes have an in-built expectation of males being the “breadwinner”. That may not be very PC, but it may also be a fact of life. If our education system and job opportunities fail to allow that to happen, then inevitably we will create generations of boys who will feel they have failed. The low self-esteem will simply feed a spiral of poor mental health.

We have to make boys aspire to better, and this needs to be a focus of our education system. It doesn’t just have to be academic; acquiring practical skills or sporting prowess are equally valuable. Sometimes boys almost need to be confronted with hard facts and choices; metaphorical “tough love”. It could be the rugby coach who won’t select a boy who is messing around in class (believe me, I have seen this work).

Furthermore, we mustn’t ever forget that boys in particular develop later. To my certain (personal) knowledge, a boy seen to be academically slow at the age of 11 can walk out of a world renowned university with a first class degree a decade later. A good educational system nurtures and teases out this talent. Does anyone else wonder if it is a coincidence that Sam Warburton, Gareth Bale and Geraint Thomas went to the same school? Someone inspired those three recent Welsh sporting heroes to do more than look cool. We need that for all our boys, and of course the girls too.

Many of the old “male jobs” have gone, and they aren’t coming back. But equally a green industrial revolution is coming, with the potential for well-paid jobs in manufacturing, services and supply. The new Welsh freeports are going to play a critical role here; the ambition for floating offshore wind generation is mind-bogglingly huge. This is a once-in-a-generation opportunity to upskill Wales and provide well paid jobs in manufacturing, offshore services,-distribution networks, energy storage etc, and it’s all focussed on green energy.

We must give our young people (boys especially) the aspiration and education to grasp these opportunities and fill these jobs. With a decent wage comes the pride that being part of a success story brings, the ability to be the “breadwinner” and to put a roof over the family’s head. We simply can’t waste this chance to break the spiral of decline, dependency and despair.

Providing a decent home is also seen to be critical for male self-esteem, and it is something we all want and need. Homelessness or the worry about it drives despair. It’s yet another straw on the camel’s back, another issue that could tip someone over the edge.

We simply have to tackle the housing crisis and everyone knows we need to build more. But that again will take time, and money that isn’t immediately available. So how about some quick projects to create starter homes in unused buildings, be they vacant high street properties, unused government offices or old farm buildings. It’s not the definitive solution but at least it is a start.

We won’t ever stop all suicides. Mental illness, which some people develop through absolutely no fault of their own will make that the case. But for many contemplating suicide, getting to the point of seeing no future and no hope will be driven by life events. Mental illness, perhaps avoidable, will make those events more likely and their impact more severe.

Yes, we need better mental health services, but that will take time and money. Meanwhile there is a lot society (all of us) could do to make lives better, that doesn’t require all that much government intervention or vast sums of money.

It’s time to start unloading straws.