Pyromania is a psychiatric disorder characterized by the impulse to start fires. Pyromaniacs are distinct from arsonists who start fires for revenge or personal gain or because of psychosis. Pyromaniacs are driven to start fires because doing so gives them a feeling of euphoria and release. In addition to deliberately starting fires, pyromaniacs sometimes develop an obsession with fire trucks, fire stations, or fire fighters.
Pyromania is a relatively rare condition, affecting under one percent of the population. Ninety percent of people diagnosed with pyromania are male. The condition is even rarer in children and adolescents than it is in adults.
While a 1979 study conducted by the United States Law Enforcement Assistance Administration (LEAA) found that 14 percent of arson cases were due to pyromania or other mental illness, pyromania is found to be responsible in a very small percentage of arson cases in which a child or adolescent is the suspect. However, children can develop pyromania as young as age three. For a child to be diagnosed as a pyromaniac, he or she must have a history of deliberately setting fires, and it must be shown that the fire-setting behavior cannot be attributed to revenge attempts, financial motives, brain damage, or other psychological disorders such as anti-social personality disorder. It must be shown that the child has an attraction to fire and experiences feelings of satisfaction or relief after setting a fire.
Pyromania is typically treated with behavioral modification therapy in both children and adults. Behavioral modification seeks to condition behavior based on a system of reward and punishment. Desired behaviors are reinforced through positive responses. Treatment sometimes includes allowing the patient to play out his or her fantasies of setting fires in a controlled setting.
A pyromaniac may alternatively be treated through talk therapy. The therapist will work with the patient to analyze the fire-setting behavior so that it is no longer an unconscious impulse. In addition, the therapist will address any possible underlying problems and emotions that the patient may try to deal with by setting fires. Family therapy and community intervention are other therapeutic options.
Psychological treatment for pyromania does not typically have a good prognosis. While it does make a difference in 95% of cases, the mania usually persists to a significant degree. In some cases, a serotonin reuptake inhibitor (SRI), often used as an antidepressant, is prescribed to pyromaniacs to help manage their impulses.