THERE are as many routes to loneliness as there are people who suffer from it. The twists and turns of a life, with its cul de sacs, its unexpected delays and unexplained diversions, can somehow lead us to a destination where we feel abandoned and alone. Like being lost in dense forest without a map or compass, we go round and round, unable to find a way back to a world in which we feel a sense of belonging and connectedness. The more alone we feel, the less able we are to dig our way out.

Enduring loneliness kick-starts a kind of emotional dry rot that slowly but surely eats away at us from the inside, greedily consuming our foundation of self-confidence and hope. Life can be rendered meaningless simply because there is no-one to share with, no-one to bear witness to our joy, sadness or pain. Our vision of others can become distorted as loneliness makes us experience the world as an uncaring, hostile place.

Last week, Prime Minister Theresa May appointed Tracey Crouch MP, as Minister for Loneliness. The appointment will continue the legacy of late MP Jo Cox, murdered in 2016 by a right-wing extremist. Cox set up the Commission on Loneliness and spearheaded the campaign to address the relentless trend towards loneliness across the UK. Increasingly, the problem is being treated as an epidemic and there is a growing body of research which suggests that chronic loneliness presents a real risk to health and reduces life expectancy. Heart disease, depression, stroke, diabetes, high blood pressure and an array of mental health difficulties are all potential and serious side effects of social isolation.

Across the UK, some nine million people report feeling lonely much, or all of the time. The condition can affect anyone, regardless of age, gender, social or economic status and we become more susceptible to it as we get older when we experience declining health and the loss of those close to us. Yet, despite the fact that millions of us feel lonely, few of us can bear to admit it.

Part of the problem is our own and society’s ambivalence towards loneliness and solitude. While these two "solo" states of being are not the same – loneliness being an unwanted and distressed condition, whereas solitude is actively sought out and valued – they are connected. Both are conduits to the interior, making us more conscious of the self within. The difference is that in loneliness, we can feel fearful of becoming intimate with the person inside and this makes us avoidant of spending time alone.

With solitude, there is a purpose and curiosity about being alone with oneself, with time and space to explore the depths of who we are and how we want to live. Solitude, in this sense, can be creative and fruitful.

Strange then, that those who seek out solitude are often regarded with suspicion or seen as eccentric because they choose to stray away from the herd and graze in their own pastures. In a world where the cult of individualism is the paradigm for success and wellbeing, we are, paradoxically, shamed by the fact of loneliness in ourselves, and feel contempt or pity when we see it in others.

Society’s contempt for loneliness (with all its uncomfortable connotations of failure and pathos) turns what is a distressing and unhappy predicament into something of a taboo.

The first step in understanding and addressing the issue is to de-stigmatise it by dispelling the myth that people are lonely because they’re "sad, mad or bad". They’re not.

All of us will experience episodes of loneliness across our lifetime. We should encourage one another to see periods of solitude as fundamental to our sanity and to personal growth. While chronic loneliness really is bad for our health, it’s not incurable and there is much that governments and the voluntary sector can do to put resources in place to help stop the loneliness epidemic.

To access these supports, we need, first of all, to feel OK about saying, “I am lonely” without the fear that the whole world will see us as a failure or a weirdo.