Arson should not be used to medicalise cases of social problems: Study 

BY Ruwan Laknath Jayakody

Arson should not be seen as a case of medicalising a social problem, especially in light of there being certain fire-setters who are not suffering from psychiatric illnesses, but start fires for financial reasons and motives, and as an act of revenge.

This concern was raised in a research article on “Arson and psychiatry” authored by S.R. Dias (attached to the University of Peradeniya Medical Faculty’s Psychiatry Department) and J. Mendis (formerly attached to the National Institute of Mental Health) and published in the Sri Lanka Journal of Forensic Medicine, Science, and Law 1 (1) in January 2011.

Fires resulting from the crime of arson, Dias and Mendis noted, causes loss of lives and burn injuries, thus becoming a public health problem. Additionally, they cause damage and destruction of property.

Fire-setting or arson by adult psychiatric patients, Dias and Mendis explained, is a symptom found in many primary disorders, and not as J.L. Geller’s “Fire-setting in the adult psychiatric population” noted, a reflection of the original disorder of pyromania, as arson was historically defined. However, still there is the rare case where it is a reflection of pyromania in the classic sense. As E.C. Ritchie and T.G. Huff further noted in the “Psychiatric aspects of arsonists”, the majority who commit arson have extensive psychiatric histories and symptoms at the time of fire-setting. That said, Dias and Mendis observed that there are fire-setters who do not have any psychiatric illness, but start fires for financial reasons or as an act of revenge.

Therefore, Dias and Mendis reported two local cases where arson was seen in the context of in-ward psychiatric care.

Case one

A 19-year-old,, briefly attached to the army but no longer employed in it, presented with a history of destroying his kitchen and belongings, without any apparent reason, by way of setting fire to them. He had a history of cannabis and alcohol abuse for two years, and also suffered from stress related to the refusal of a romantic proposition made by him. He firmly believed that his persecutors had done a malevolent charm, and made him consume kabara thel (monitor oil) to cause his destruction. As a remedy, the patient had burned coconut shells and had been inhaling the fumes as he believed that the fumes will cause the oil to be excreted through his sweat. He had also burned towels, as he believed that this would prevent the monitors from coming to his village and thereby prevent the villagers from extracting more oil and making him further consume it. He had used kerosene oil to burn his kitchen. When queried as to the reason, he had not given an explanation but had instead laughed and indicated some unspoken rationale which amounted to a bizarre delusion. He also believed that the twinkling of the stars indicated that his girlfriend is in communication with him which suggested a delusional perception. He also believed that his thoughts were known to others, in turn suggesting the condition of thought broadcasting. Due to his bizarre delusions and perception, as well as the condition of thought broadcasting, Dias and Mendis diagnosed him as a schizophrenic (a chronic and severe mental disorder and illness involving psychosis, characterised by distortions in thinking, perception, emotions, language, sense of self, and behaviour, with hallucinations [hearing voices or seeing things that are not there] and delusions [fixed and false beliefs] being experienced) while his persecutory delusions indicated that he had paranoid schizophrenia.

Case two

A 52-year-old patient diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia had burnt two houses, was acting suspicious, and found to be wandering away from home. Her compliance with medication was poor. She had been hearing voices from the walls of the houses and believed that there were cameras hidden inside the walls which broadcasted her behaviour to others. Due to these beliefs, she had burned two houses by actively putting kerosene. As the owners of the houses knew about her illness, she had not been taken to the Police and had instead been brought to a hospital. She was diagnosed as having a relapse of schizophrenia.

Causative factors for arson

The causes for arson, G.B. Leong and J.A. Silva noted in “Revisiting arson from an outpatient forensic perspective”, are psychotic illness, learning disability, alcohol abuse, and disordered mood and juvenile conduct disorder.

Arson is a condition which has, as mentioned by Dias and Mendis, both a clinical and legal relevance.

In the “Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory-Adolescent profiles of adolescent boys with a history of fire-setting”, J.M. Moore and S.K. Thompson-Pope elaborated that fire-setting in childhood and adolescence is associated with the more severe end of the conduct disorder continuum and is considered to be a poorer prognostic of later pathology.

Other causes for juvenile fire-setting include schizophrenia, organic mental disorder (neuro-cognitive disorders with reduced brain function due to illnesses that are not psychiatric in nature), post-traumatic stress disorder, and severe mental retardation. A.A. Pontius’s “Motiveless fire-setting: Implicating partial limbic (part of the brain involved in behavioural and emotional responses) seizure kindling by revived memories of fires in limbic psychotic trigger reaction” noted rare cases of temporal lobe (sits behind the ears and are the second largest lobe which are also believed to play an important role in processing affect and emotions, language, and certain aspects of visual perception) epilepsy (affects the brain and causes frequent seizures) with the involvement of the amygdala (a cluster of cells located near the base of the brain, one in each hemisphere or side of the brain, and which helps define and regulate emotions) in children, resulting in fire-setting. 

Ritchie and Huff who studied and examined the mental health records and prison files of 283 adult arsonists found that 90% of the arsonists had recorded mental health histories, with 36% having major mental illnesses such as schizophrenia or bipolar disorder (a severe and persistent mental and psychological illness characterised by periods of severe and intense mood alterations and swings, specifically deep, prolonged, and profound depression that alternate with periods of excessively elevated or irritable mood known as mania, and changes in thinking and behaviour), 64% abusing alcohol or drugs at the time of fire setting, 1% being diagnosed with pyromania, and the motives for setting fire ranging from being angry to delusional.

Case analysis

In the two aforementioned cases, Dias and Mendis pointed out that since these patients pose a risk to the society and to themselves, they were treated at a secure unit where they gained full recovery on antipsychotics medication. Further, they both could not remember the act of arson, which Dias and Mendis opined could be seen as the psychological defence mechanism of repression which works to reduce the anxiety associated with such destructive acts.

With regard to the forensic implications of their acts of arson, in the case of both the patients, the M’Naghten rule which states that if the act was done under a delusional mind or a defect of reason resulting from a disease of the mind, which rendered them incapable of knowing the nature and quality of the act they were doing or that what they were doing was wrong (Penal Code), and which in turn proves the absence of the mens rea (guilty mind), could be applied, and hence, they could be defended with the legal provision of being of unsound mind at the time of committing the offence.

The longitudinal study by K.L. Soothill and P.J. Pope in “Arson: A 20-year cohort study” revealed that 4% of arsonists were re-convicted for arson while half of them were convicted for other crimes. In this regard, Dias and Mendis observed that a person convicted of arson for the second time is at a greater risk of committing further offences. Also, antisocial personality disorder, mental retardation, and persistent social isolation, and fire-setting being done as an act of sexual gratification, all increases, Dias and Mendis emphasised, the risk of repeating the act.

When arson results in the destruction of property, and if the property has been insured against fire, the property owner, in most parts of the world, however, cannot claim the damage as the insurance company does not pay the damage for arson.

In conclusion, it is noted that arsonists who do so with financial motives or for the purpose of exacting revenge, should be denied the legal providence under the M’Naghten rule.