As summer slowly comes to an end, we are getting closer to the time of crisp, fall weather that brings us back indoors and invites us to cuddle under cozy blankets with comforting cocoas or teas, sometimes in front of a beautiful, blazing fireplace. Many people have fondness for fires during the cooler times of year, as they can be beautiful, calming, and the smell alone can evoke a memories of the holidays, family, and togetherness. Many people have genuine interest and appreciation for fire and all of the things that it can provide: warmth, comfort, cooked food, just to name a few. But for some, this attraction can go far beyond appreciation and can become an obsessive fascination that leads to devastating consequences.
Pyromania, or the deliberate setting of fires more than once, is a mental health condition that is defined by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th Edition (DSM-5) as:
- A person deliberately and purposefully setting fires on more than one occasion.
- They experience tension, arousal, or excitement before they set a fire.
- They have a fascination or attraction to fire.
- They feel pleasure, gratification, euphoria, or relief when setting fires, witnessing fires, or participating in their aftermath.
- There is no monetary gain for the setting of fires, no expression of sociopolitical ideology or anger, not used to conceal criminal activity, not to improve one’s living circumstances, and not in response to any delusional thoughts, hallucinations, or any result of impaired judgment. This means that arson or terrorism would not constitute a pyromania diagnosis.
- The setting of these fires is not better explained by a manic episode or another mental health condition.
The DSM-V categorizes this diagnosis as relating to conduct, disruptive behavior, and impulse-control disorders, suggesting that this, amongst other diagnoses, involves a difficulty with regulating and managing impulses to do certain things. The research shows that pyromania is extremely rare, and is diagnosed in less than 1% of the population of those tested, and in that less than 1%, the people diagnosed with pyromania were predominantly male. This diagnosis is mostly provided for children and teens, and is rarely a diagnosis given to an adult. Children and adolescents have been seen to participate in fire setting and meeting the above-mentioned criteria much more than adults, as they have not yet learned the ability to manage their impulses to avoid severe consequences.
The research and treatment of this disorder has been difficult, because, as mentioned above, mental health professionals do not immediately categorize arsonists or terrorists who intentionally set fires as pyromaniacs. This is because the purpose of their fire setting usually has another motive other than impulse control difficulties, such as financial gain or some other external reason that is motivating their behavior. Arson is not a mental health diagnosis; it is a legal definition, and many times when someone is convicted of arson, they are charged through the court system and get the resulting consequences legally. The research shows that little focus is spent on assessing or treating those charged for arson for any mental health conditions, like pyromania, that may have been the cause of their actions. Because of this, there is little information about the actual statistics of people who may meet the criteria for this disorder.
Those who meet the criteria for pyromania are generally treated by mental health professionals, usually a behavior therapist and/or psychiatrist who can work on helping them manage their impulsive behavior and work on developing coping skills to improve their ability to appreciate fire in safer, healthier ways.
Dr. Shannon McHugh is a Licensed Clinical and Forensic Psychologist in Los Angeles, California. She specializes in assessment and treatment of children, adolescents, and adults who have developmental and social delays, behavioral difficulties, and those who have experienced traumatic events