When an interest or fascination with fire deviates from healthy to unhealthy, people may instantly say it’s “pyromania.”
But there’s a lot of misperceptions and misunderstandings surrounding pyromania. One of the biggest is that an arsonist or anyone who sets a fire is considered a “pyromaniac.” Research doesn’t support this.
Pyromania is often used interchangeably with the terms arson or fire-starting, but these are different.
Pyromania is a psychiatric condition. Arson is a criminal act. Fire-starting is a behavior that may or may not be connected to a condition.
Pyromania is very rare and incredibly under-researched, so its actual occurrence is hard to determine. Some research states that only between 3 and 6 percent of people in inpatient psychiatric hospitals meet the diagnostic criteria.
Pyromania is defined in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) as an impulse control disorder. Impulse control disorders are when a person is unable to resist a destructive urge or impulse.
Other types of impulse control disorders include pathological gambling and kleptomania.
To receive a pyromania diagnosis, the DSM-5 criteria states that someone must:
- purposefully set fires on more than one occasion
- experience tension before setting fires and a release after
- have an intense attraction to fire and its paraphernalia
- derive pleasure from setting or seeing fires
- have symptoms that aren’t better explained by another mental disorder, such as:
A person with pyromania can only receive a diagnosis if they don’t set fires:
- for a type of gain, like money
- for ideological reasons
- to express anger or vengeance
- to cover up another criminal act
- to improve one’s circumstances (for instance, getting insurance money to buy a better house)
- in response to delusions or hallucinations
- due to impaired judgement, such as being intoxicated
The DSM-5 has very strict criteria on pyromania. It’s rarely diagnosed.
Pyromania vs. arson
While pyromania is a psychiatric condition dealing with impulse control, arson is a criminal act. It’s usually done maliciously and with criminal intent.
Pyromania and arson are both intentional, but pyromania is strictly pathological or compulsive. Arson may not be.
Although an arsonist can have pyromania, most arsonists don’t have it. They may, however, have other diagnosable mental health conditions or be socially isolated.
At the same time, a person with pyromania may not commit an act of arson. Although they may frequently start fires, they can do it in a way that isn’t criminal.
Someone who has pyromania starts fires at a frequency around every 6 weeks.
Symptoms may start during puberty and last until or through adulthood.
Other symptoms include:
- an uncontrollable urge to set fires
- fascination and attraction to fires and its paraphernalia
- pleasure, a rush, or relief when setting or seeing fires
- tension or excitement around fire-starting
Some research says that while a person with pyromania will get an emotional release after setting a fire, they may also experience guilt or distress afterward, especially if they were fighting the impulse as long as they could.
Someone may also be an avid watcher of fires who goes out of their way to seek them out — even to the point of becoming a firefighter.
Remember that fire-setting itself doesn’t immediately indicate pyromania. It can be associated with other mental health conditions, such as:
The exact cause of pyromania isn’t yet known. Similar to other mental health conditions, it may be related to certain imbalances of brain chemicals, stressors, or genetics.
Starting fires in general, without a diagnosis of pyromania, can have numerous causes. Some of these include:
- having a diagnosis of another mental health condition, such as a conduct disorder
- a history of abuse or neglect
- misuse of alcohol or drugs
- deficits in social skills or intelligence
Pyromania and genetics
While research is limited, impulsivity is considered somewhat heritable. This means there may be a genetic component.
This isn’t only limited to pyromania. Many mental disorders are considered moderately heritable.
The genetic component may also come from our impulse control. The neurotransmitters dopamine and serotonin, which assist in regulating impulse control, may be influenced by our genes.
Pyromania isn’t often diagnosed until around age 18, though pyromania symptoms may start showing up around puberty. At least one report suggests pyromania onset could occur as early as age 3.
But fire-starting as a behavior can also occur in children for a number of reasons, none of which include having pyromania.
Often, many children or adolescents experiment or are curious about lighting fires or playing with matches. This is considered normal development. Sometimes it’s called “curiosity fire-setting.”
If setting fires becomes an issue, or they have the intent to cause serious damage, it’s often investigated as a symptom of another condition, such as ADHD or a conduct disorder, rather than pyromania.
There isn’t enough research to indicate risk factors for someone developing pyromania.
What little research we have indicates that people who have pyromania are:
- predominantly male
- around age 18 at diagnosis
- more likely to have learning disabilities or lack social skills
Pyromania is rarely diagnosed, in part because of the strict diagnostic criteria and lack of research. It’s also often hard to diagnose because someone would need to actively seek help, and many people don’t.
Sometimes pyromania is only diagnosed after a person goes in for treatment for a different condition, such as a mood disorder like depression.
During treatment for the other condition, a mental health professional may seek out information about personal history or symptoms the person worries about, and fire-starting may come up. From there, they can further evaluate to see whether the person fits the diagnostic criteria for pyromania.
If someone is charged with arson, they may also be evaluated for pyromania, depending on their reasons behind starting the fire.
Pyromania can be chronic if left untreated, so it’s important to seek help. This condition can go into remission, and a combination of therapies can manage it.
There’s no single treatment doctors prescribe for pyromania. Treatment will vary. It may take time to find the best one or combination for you. Options include:
- cognitive behavioral therapy
- other behavioral therapies, such as aversion therapy
- antidepressants, such as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs)
- anti-anxiety drugs (anxiolytics)
- antiepileptic medications
- atypical antipsychotics
Cognitive behavioral therapy has shown promise for helping work through a person’s impulses and triggers. A doctor can also help you come up with coping techniques to deal with the impulse.
If a child receives a pyromania or fire-setting diagnosis, joint therapy or parental training may also be needed.
Pyromania is a rarely diagnosed psychiatric condition. It differs from fire-starting or arson.
While research has been limited due to its rarity, the DSM-5 does recognize it as an impulse control disorder with specific diagnostic criteria.
If you believe you or someone you know is experiencing pyromania, or are worried about an unhealthy fascination with fire, seek help. There’s nothing to be ashamed of, and remission is possible.