Pyromania

Definition

Pyromania is a rare, pathological disorder characterized by intentional and repeated fire setting. People with pyromania are deeply fascinated by fire and related paraphernalia. They cannot stop their impulse to set fires, may participate in other fire-related activities, and experience feelings of satisfaction or a release of built-up inner tension or anxiety once a fire is set.

Symptoms

Pyromania can affect adolescents and adults, and is more common in males than in females, though it can occur in both, and especially in people with learning disabilities and who lack social skills. Symptoms include an attraction to fire, purposely setting more than one fire, feeling excited or tense just before setting a fire, and feeling relief or pleasure in the aftermath of a fire. Signs of pyromania include matches, lighters, burn holes in fabrics and rugs, burnt pieces of paper or other inflammable material in garbage cans or near a sink or stove. Someone with pyromania may seem obsessed with fire and fire fighting, frequently visiting fire departments, watching fires, helping out after a fire, and even setting off false fire alarms. Adolescents with pyromania fall into five general subcategories: those who ignite fires to win the approval of antisocial adults in their lives; those who exhibit other kinds of delinquent and aggressive behavior; those who are cognitively impaired (often by a neurological or medical condition); those who are seriously disturbed and diagnosed as paranoid, psychotic, and sometimes even suicidal; and those who are crying out for help.

Causes

Although the exact cause is unknown, pyromania is often associated with other psychiatric conditions, such as mood disorders, problems with impulse-control, or substance abuse. People with pyromania set fires to release the build-up of an inner tension; the intent is not to commit a crime, seek revenge, or secure material gain of any kind. Because it is a rare condition, not many studies have been performed to investigate the roots of pyromania. Some research has likened pyromania and other impulse-control disorders to behavioral addictions, and suggests there may be a genetic link.

Treatments

Due to the high risk of injury, death, damage to property, and incarceration, it is important to seek treatment immediately upon diagnosis. Pyromania that starts in childhood usually continues into adulthood and does not stop on its own or as a result of any type of punishment. Cognitive behavioral therapy, among other therapies, can be used to treat pyromania. The affected individual can learn to pay attention to feelings of tension that build up inside, figure out what causes the urge, understand the effects, and find new ways to release those feelings that are not related to fire. Teaching the individual better problem-solving skills and using a graph to map the chain of events that lead to both the client’s inner feelings and external fire-related behavior can accomplish this. Someone with pyromania may also benefit from fire safety lessons and exposure to people who have suffered burns from fires. Family counseling can help the individual’s family better understand the disorder and learn how to maintain a safe home environment.

References

Burton PRS, McNiel DE, Binder RL, et al. Firesetting, Arson, Pyromania, and Forensic Mental Health Expert. J Am Acad psychiatry Law. 2012;40:355-365.  

Grant JE, Won KS. Clinical characteristics and psychiatric comorbidity of pyromania. Journal of Clinical Psychiatry. 2007;68(11):1717-1722.  

American Psychiatric Association. Understanding Mental Disorders: Your Guide to DSM-5. 2015. American Psychiatric Publishing.

Bevilacqua L, Goldman D. Genetics of impulsive behaviour. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences. 5 April 2013 (published online 25 Feb 2013);368(1615).  

Grant, JE, Atmaca M, Fineberg N, et al. Impulse control disorders and behavioural addictions in the ICD-11. World Psychiatry. June 2014;13(2):125-127.

Last reviewed 10/10/2017