Do you or a loved one have an unexplained fascination with fire? Does seeing or starting a fire feel like the only way to find relief from stress? Despite desperately fighting against the urge to start a fire, do you find you can’t seem to stop? If this sounds like you, you may be experiencing symptoms of pyromania and need to seek help immediately. Firesetting can be dangerous and can be hard to talk about, but help is out there!
Pyromania: What Does It Mean?
According to the Social Work Dictionary, pyromania is defined as, “An impulse control disorder in which the person frequently has compelling urges to start or watch fires.”
A person with pyromania starts fires to experience relief from stress or internal tension. They get pleasure from fire but are not motivated by external factors or by malicious intent.
Pyromania is classified under the Disruptive, Impulse-Control, and Conduct Disorders section of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders- 5th Edition (DSM- 5)*. These disorders all involve problems with controlling emotions or behaviors.
*The DSM-5 is a publication by the American Psychiatric Association which provides detailed diagnostic criteria and information on mental health disorders.
Impulse control is the ability to control urges to engage in a behavior or delay immediate gratification.
An impulse control disorder is repeatedly being unable to resist urges or temptations despite the harmful or negative consequences the behavior may bring.
What Causes Pyromania?
The exact cause of pyromania is unknown. Not all people who engage in firesetting behaviors fit criteria for a pyromania diagnosis. However, current research indicates that certain individual and environmental factors may increase the risk for someone to engage in firesetting behavior.
Individual risk factors:
· Antisocial behaviors
· Sensation seeking
· Social skills deficits
· Learning difficulties
· Low intellectual functioning
· Desire to provoke a reaction from others
· Lack of understanding of dangers of fire
Environmental risk factors:
· Abuse or neglect by parents
· Limited parental supervision and support
· Family dysfunction
· Exposure to fire at an early age
Stats: How Many Suffer from this Disorder?
Pyromania is very rare and reliable data on the number of people affected by this disorder is not available.
Pyromania In Adults/Children
It is rare for a child to be diagnosed with pyromania, however, there have been cases where a fascination with fire has been observed at an early age. Firesetting behavior is more common in teenage boys before the age of 18.
Signs and Symptoms of Pyromania
Someone with pyromania will engage in multiple incidents of fire starting. They start fires for the sole purpose of relieving stress or gaining pleasure. They may feel a sense of craving for fire and will disregard any consequences. Their firesetting behavior is not due to other mental health conditions, experimenting with fire, or substance use.
What are the Common Behaviors/Characteristics?
A person with pyromania may spend a lot of time alone, they may have difficulty making friends or being in social situations. They may have difficulty expressing their emotions in a healthy way. People with pyromania may start to show a noticeable build-up of stress and begin to be shorter or aggressive with those around them as tension builds before engaging in firesetting behavior.
They may show an unexplainable fascination for all things fire related and idolize firefighters or other fire-related professions. Sometimes people will research fires and watch videos of fires. They may go to sites where fires are happening and may at times take on professions involving fire.
It is common for people to feel great remorse after they have started a fire, but this remorse alone will not deter them from containing the behavior. It has also been reported that some people experience suicidal thoughts thinking that is the only way to stop their urges.
Testing: What are the Diagnostic Criteria Per the DSM-5?
To be diagnosed with pyromania, your therapist will complete an evaluation to see if you meet the following diagnostic DSM-5criteria:
A. Deliberate and purposeful fire setting on more than one occasion.
B. Tension or affective arousal before the act.
C. Fascination with, interest in, curiosity about, or attraction to fire and its situational contexts (e.g., paraphernalia, uses, consequences).
D. Pleasure, gratification, or relief when setting fires or when witnessing or participating in their aftermath.
E. The fire setting is not done for monetary gain, as an expression of sociopolitical ideology, to conceal criminal activity, to express anger or vengeance, to improve one’s living circumstances, in response to a delusion or hallucination, or as a result of impaired judgement (e.g., in major neurocognitive disorder, intellectual disability [intellectual developmental disorder], substance intoxication)
F. The fire setting is not better explained by conduct disorder, a manic episode, or antisocial personality disorder.
Pyromania and Other Conditions
Intentional fire setting behavior may be seen in people with other mental health disorders, but this does not mean they meet criteria for pyromania. A person with pyromania is different than someone who engages in fire setting behaviors for motives other than immediate gratification or stress relief.
Pyromania vs Arson
Arson is a legal term and according to Merriam-Webster dictionary means, “the willful or malicious burning of property (such as abuilding) especially with criminal or fraudulent intent.”
A person committing arson sets fires for personal gain or to make some type of statement. This is different than a person with pyromania because they engage in fire setting behaviors for relieving stress or for gratification and not for malicious intent.
Pyromania vs Bipolar Disorder
While the connection of bipolar disorder and pyromania seems to be less common, the high impulsivity usually associated with bipolar disorder may present a greater risk for firesetting behavior.
Pyromania vs Antisocial Personality Disorder
Antisocial Personality Disorder is diagnosed when a person is 18 years old or older. It is diagnosed when a person demonstrates a pattern of disregard for others and engages in behaviors that negatively affect others without remorse.
People with Antisocial Personality Disorder tend to engage in impulsive behaviors and may engage in firesetting, however, this does not mean they fit criteria for pyromania. The motivation for fire setting may differ as they may do it to seek excitement, with criminal intent or to get some sort of personal benefit.
Pyromania is at times diagnosed in conjunction with other mental health disorders, substance use disorders, depression, gambling disorder and other impulse-control and disruptive conduct disorders.
Example Case of Pyromania
Johnny is 17 years old and has always been a quiet and reserved boy with no friends. His father is verbally abusive when home, but is often away for work. Ever since he can remember, he has been fascinated by fire and firefighters. He remembers the relief he felt the first time he lit a match when he was around 11 and he began to burn papers in his bathroom sink. Over time, he began to make bigger fires in his fireplace and then he found a small wooded area in his town where he would light fires in some old bins he’d found. He realizes that every time he burns something he feels as if his stress disappears. He feels an intense yearning every time in between what he calls his “fire sessions.” He becomes frustrated easily and cannot focus. Johnny feels a desire to make bigger fires and his mind often wonders as to how he could do this.
How to Deal/Coping With Pyromania
Fire setting presents a huge risk to self or others. Therefore, it is very important that you get help as soon as you start to notice a strong urge to set fires. Therapy will be an extremely important part of managing your symptoms.
Look out for These Complications/Risk Factors
As previously mentioned, it is important to be aware that certain individual and environmental factors may increase risk of engaging in firesetting behavior. Access to fire starting materials and lack of supervision can greatly increase risk.
Talk to your mental health provider right away if you notice:
• Your symptoms have worsened.
• You develop new symptoms.
• You are having thoughts of suicide.
• You have thoughts of hurting others by using fire.
Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) appears to be effective in treating pyromania. CBT helps you recognize feelings, thoughts and behaviors leading you to act out in this way. It can help you identify coping skills that will allow you to relieve stress or get satisfaction in healthier ways.
Family sessions will be essential to help your support system understand how to best help you manage your urges and safety plan.
Fire-safety education is an extremely important part of treatment. Your therapist may request that you sign a release of information to connect you to the right people who will be able to provide this service.
If the risk to self and others is too great, inpatient treatment may be the best option. This will help you get your urges under control in a safe environment with limited access to fire.
Possible Medications for Pyromania
There is currently not enough research to indicate a specific medication as most effective in treating pyromania. Doctors may prescribe medication depending on what other mental health disorder may be present as well. Some studies have shown success in decreasing urges for fire setting with the use of antidepressants, mood stabilizers, antiseizure medications and some antipsychotic medications.
Home Remedies to help Pyromania
1. Reach out to your family or friends for support. Give them information on pyromania and help them understand what symptoms they should be looking for and how to best help you when you are feeling strong urges.
2. Use mindfulness to cope with urges and reduce stress or anxiety that may be related to firesetting behavior. This may be easier said than done and will take a lot of practice, but work with your therapist to find something that works for you. You can use mindfulness apps on your phone to guide you in meditation to cope with urges. Two recommendations are “InsightTimer” and “HeadSpace.” Another great resource for learning how to “Ride the Wave” of urges is the following link: http://portlandpsychotherapyclinic.com/2011/11/riding-wave-using-mindfulness-help-cope-urges/
3. Limit access to fire starting equipment. When around fire make sure that you have a support person with you for safety.
4. Have a safety plan! Create a safety plan with your support system for what to do if you engage in firesetting behavior. Have fire extinguishers in your home and make sure to call 9-1-1 in the case of an emergency.
Living with Pyromania
Pyromania does not have to take away your ability to live a full and healthy life. Treatment can help you fight against urges and help you find ways to make positive changes in your life. You are not alone in this and while pyromania is rare, there are support groups and treatment providers available to help you.
Insurance Coverage for Pyromania
Pyromania is a billable diagnosis and most insurance providers should cover mental health treatment costs. Call your insurance provider to get specifics on your coverage.
How to Find a Therapist
You want to find someone with experience in cognitive behavioral treatment, behavior modification, and impulse control disorders. Call the numbers at the end of this article for resources in your area.
What Should I be Looking for in an LMHP?
Titles for licensed mental health professionals (LMHP) may vary depending on their field of study or where they practice. Some examples are:
· Licensed Clinical Social Worker
· Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist
· Licensed Professional Counselor
· Psychiatric Nurse Practitioners
Cost of treatment will vary depending on the provider’s area of expertise.
Questions to Ask a Potential Therapist
• Do have experience working with impulse control disorders?
• What kind of license do you have?
• What kind of therapy will you provide?
• How often will I see you for sessions?
• How will I know if I’m getting better?
• What method of payment do you accept?
Pyromania Resources and Support Helpline
There is no national helpline for pyromania.
Here are some resources that can help you find support groups in your area:
National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) Helpline: Provides information on mental health disorders and referrals to local providers. Live person available M-F from 10am-6pm EST.
SAMHSA Treatment Referral Helpline: Provides general information on mental health and helps you locate treatment services in your area. Speak to a live person M-F 8am-8pm EST
Help for pyromania is out there! Do not keep your urges a secret and reach out to people for help. Find a support group in your area and get treatment as soon as possible. You are not alone.