Pyromania, the term for pathological fire setting, is a rare disorder characterized by the intentional and repeated setting of fires. People with pyromania are deeply fascinated by fire and related paraphernalia. They may experience feelings of pleasure, gratification, or a release of inner tension or anxiety once a fire is set.
Pyromania can affect adolescents and adults, and is more common in males than in females, though it can occur in both. Individuals with learning disabilities and those with deficits in social skills are overrepresented among those who exhibit this behavior. According to the DSM-5, the diagnostic criteria for pyromania 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
- That the fire setting is not better explained by a manic episode or other disorder
Signs of pyromania include:
- An excessive or unnecessary amount of matches or lighters
- Burn holes in fabrics and rugs
- Burnt pieces of paper or other material in garbage cans or near a sink or stove
Someone with pyromania may seem obsessed with fire and firefighting, frequently visiting fire departments, watching fires, helping out after a fire, and even setting off false fire alarms
Many people find comfort in watching fires, typically in fireplaces or other controlled environments. Individuals with pyromania are distinct in that they are unable to control the impulse to set fires, often doing so in settings that are uncontrolled, and sometimes in situations where the fire could do damage to property or other people. People with pyromania may derive satisfaction from property damage or the danger the fires they set create for others.
Individuals with pyromania engage in fire setting, but do so for distinctly personal reasons, often connected to another psychological disorder. They do not set fires for monetary gain, for ideological reasons, to cover up criminal activity, to express anger or revenge, or as a result of a delusion, a hallucination, or impaired judgment.
The prevalence of pyromania in the population is unknown but believed to be exceedingly rare. Even among a sample of persons reaching the criminal justice system due to repeated fire setting, only 3.3% had symptoms that met full criteria for pyromania.
Although the exact cause is unknown, pyromania is often associated with other psychiatric conditions, such as mood disorders or substance use disorders. Because it is a rare condition, few studies have investigated the roots of pyromania. Some research has likened pyromania and other impulse-control disorders to behavioral addictions. Some experts have suggested that there may be a genetic link between such conditions.
A diagnosis of pyromania is not given when fire set­ting occurs as part of conduct disorder, a manic episode, or antisocial personality disorder, or if it occurs in response to a delusion or a hallucination.
Pyromania shares some of the symptoms of psychopathy, including an indifference to the harm inflicted by one’s actions, but occurs most frequently in combination with substance use disorders, gambling disorder, depressive and bipolar disorders, and other disruptive, impulse-control, and conduct disorders.
According to recent research, no correlation was noted between bed-wetting and fire setting. Juveniles who were identified as being cruel to animals were, however, more likely than children who were not cruel to animals to engage in repeated fire-setting. These behaviors constitute the MacDonald Triad.
The MacDonald Triad refers to fire setting, bedwetting, and cruelty to animals, three behaviors that, when present in children, may predict later violent and/or antisocial behavior. The term is derived from John M. MacDonald’s 1963 research paper The Threat To Kill. Recent research has argued that while adults who commit violent crimes may have exhibited one or more of these actions in childhood, there’s little evidence they frequently exhibited all three.
Due to the high risk of injury, death, damage to property, as well as the potential incarceration of the individual, 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, figure out what causes the urge, understand the effects, and find new ways to release feelings.
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.
While there isn’t a cure for pyromania, individuals can work with their doctors to help treat the disorder’s symptoms. Cognitive behavioral therapy can be effective, as well as, or in addition to, medications such as: antidepressants, anxiolytics, antiepileptic medications, or atypical antipsychotics.