(Received 21 April 1998; accepted 19 October 1998)
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Arson is a major source of property damage, injury and death in the United States. Many people who commit arson have extensive psychiatric histories and symptoms at the time of their fire-setting. However, traditionally the law enforcement community and the mental health community have not shared information about the characteristics of people who set fires.
This 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 firesetting. Pyromania was only diagnosed in three of the 283 cases.
Different motives for setting fires are discussed: many patients were both angry and delusional. A survey instrument, which captures both psychiatric and legal data, is included. Suggestions are made for gathering future “profiling” information. A matrix approach to coding diagnosis and behavior is presented.
Chief, Forensic Psychiatry, Walter Reed Army Medical Center, Washington, DC
Violent Crime Case Analyst, National Center for the Analysis of Violent Crime, Federal Bureau of Investigation, Quantico, VA
Stock #: JFS14546J