Arson

Arson is a major source of property damage, injury and death in North America. Many people who commit arson have extensive psychiatric histories and symptoms at the time of their fire-setting. One study examined mental health records and/or prison files from 283 arsonists; 90% of arsonists had recorded mental health histories, and of those 36% had the major mental illness of schizophrenia or bipolar disorder; 64% were abusing alcohol or drugs at the time of their fire-setting; pyromania was only diagnosed in three of the 283 cases.

Pyromania appears to be a very rare disorder, as defined in current systems of classification. In another study the medical records as well as the forensic psychiatric examination statements of 90 arson recidivists referred for pre-trial psychiatric assessment in Helsinki University Hospital Department of Forensic Psychiatry between 1973 and 1993 were reviewed. The most important diagnostic categories of arson recidivists were personality disorders, psychosis and mental retardation, often with comorbid alcoholism. In all, 68% of arsonists were under alcohol intoxication during the index crime. The psychotic and mentally retarded persons with repeated fire-setting behaviour were mostly "pure arsonists" persons guilty only of arsons during their criminal careers.

In the 2001-2002 National Epidemiologic Survey on Alcohol and Related Conditions, 43,000 Americans aged 18 and older were surveyed. One of the questions asked was 'In your entire life, did you ever start a fire on purpose to destroy someone else's property or just to see it burn?' Out of the 43,000, 400 or 1% answered yes to this question. Those who answered yes were more often male and 18-35 years old. They were 12 times more likely to have antisocial personality disorder than those who did not set fires. In addition to fires they engaged in many other criminal activities such as assault, robbery, rape, weapon use, and cruelty to animals.

In a study of DSM-IV pyromania, twenty-one adult and adolescent subjects with this diagnosis at some time during their lives were administered a semi-structured interview to elicit demographic data and information on the phenomenology, age at onset, and associated features of the disorder. The mean age at onset for pyromania was 18 years. Eighteen subjects (85.7%) reported urges to set fires. Subjects reported a mean frequency of setting 1 fire every 6 weeks. Much of the fire setting did not meet the legal definition of arson. Thirteen (61.9%) had a current comorbid Axis I mood disorder, and 10 (47.6%) met criteria for a current impulse-control disorder.

Fire-setting is remarkably common among adolescents. In a recent Canadian study of 3,965 students in grades 7 to 12, 27% of youth reported fire-setting during the past year. Of these, 13.7% reported one or two episodes, and 13.5% reported 3 or more episodes. Fire-setting was more prevalent among males and among those in high school. Youth who began fire-setting before age 10 were more likely to report frequent fire-setting during the past year. Risk factors included binge drinking, frequent cannabis use, other illicit drug use, delinquent behaviour, psychological distress and low parental monitoring.

In a city like Kelowna with risk for forest fires, prevention of fires will need to have a mental health component. Law enforcement will not be able to deal with behaviour that is this frequent and this difficult to detect.

 

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