By Kevin Murphy
TOPEKA, Kan (Reuters) - Sally Fronsman-Cecil was always inclined to have a cluttered home, but she went into the "downward spiral" life of a hoarder after her husband died in 1998.
Clothes, food, cardboard boxes, magazines, plastic bins and other items pile up in her house. Her living room is impassible; her kitchen counters heaped with dishes and food.
Fronsman-Cecil kept her problem a secret until the 2005 National Alliance on Mental Health convention in Texas.
"I had been a member of the alliance for a long time and felt comfortable about finally coming out," said Fronsman-Cecil, 63.
There are many opportunities now for hoarders to go public.
Hoarding has spilled out of the closet to become among the most publicized mental illnesses in the United States. It is the subject of cable television shows, national or regional conferences virtually weekly, and has spawned dozens of support groups.
There about 75 organizations in the country to help hoarders, compared to only a handful seven years ago, said Christiana Bratiotis, director of the Hoarding Research Project at the Boston University School of Social Work.
"It's sort of a classic case of a social problem coming into focus," Bratiotis said, comparing it to the attention homelessness received in 1980s and 90s.
Television shows on hoarding include TLC's "Hoarding: Buried Alive" and A&E's "Hoarders." They have revealed a disorder that seems to fascinate the general public, Bratiotis said.
"It is such a visual problem," she said. "The clutter is something we can see."
Hoarding conferences are generally for psychologists and public agency representatives trying to learn more about how to help hoarders. Hoarding is considered a type of obsessive-compulsive disorder, Bratiotis said.
Earlier this month, some 235 people attended a conference in Wichita, Kansas titled "All Alone in a Crowded Room." Attendance has grown in each of the four years of the conference, said Krista Lovette, program manager for the Sedgwick County Department on Aging in Wichita. She founded a hoarding coalition five years ago.
"No one was dealing with the issue," Lovette said. "You'd help clean up a house but a month later it was back in the same condition."
Hoarding is considered a safety, health and environmental problem when items pile high in a person's living space.
Renae Reinardy, a psychologist in Fargo, North Dakota, who regularly speaks at conferences on hoarding, said an estimated three million people in the United States meet the definition of a hoarder, compared to one-fifth of that 10 years ago.
"Most people did not see it as a problem 10 years ago _ they thought, 'Well, my mother is just a pack rat,'" Reinardy said. Today, there are probably 100 conferences per year in the United States that cover hoarding, she said.
Fronsman-Cecil, who is co-founder of a support group called Golden City Horde in Topeka, said publicity about hoarding enhances understanding, but that it's still a problem most people want to keep quiet.
"It is one of the most stigmatizing mental illnesses there is," she said. Hoarders are afraid the will be called lazy and told that curing the problem is simply a matter of throwing stuff away or getting organized, she said.
Hoarding is a complicated mental condition that crosses socio-economic, age and gender lines, Bratiotis said.
"People who hoard have very strong beliefs and emotions about their objects," Bratiotis said. "They believe something bad will happen if they get rid of something."
Hoarders often collect objects most people would discard, Lovette said: Napkins, take-home restaurant containers, syringes, old newspapers. Some hoarders buy new items they don't really need. Others hoard pets.
Fronsman-Cecil calls herself a horizontal hoarder, meaning her belongings are spread around in large piles. A vertical hoarder stacks items, producing space to walk but also creating a problem getting to something at the bottom of a large stack, she said.
Fronsman-Cecil said the hardest time for a hoarder can be after his or her home is cleaned up. She remembers when her grown children did that for her for the first time a few years ago.
"After they left, I kind of had a meltdown," she said. "There were definitely things that were gone that I would have kept."
(Editing by Mary Wisniewski and Jerry Norton)