Get access

Epidemiology of firesetting in adolescents: mental health and substance use correlates


  • Conflict of interest statement: No conflicts declared.

Sherri MacKay, TAPP-C, Child, Youth and Family Program, Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, 250 College Street, Toronto, Ontario, M5T 1R8, Canada; Tel: 416-535-8501, ext. 4653; Fax: 416-979-4996; Email:


Objective:  Despite high rates of firesetting among community adolescents, little is known about its correlates. This study identifies the mental health and substance use correlates of four firesetting levels in an epidemiological sample of adolescents.

Methods:  Three thousand, nine hundred and sixty-five (3,965) students in grades 7 to 12 were surveyed. Multinomial analyses were used to compare non-firesetters; desisters (lifetime, but no past-year firesetting); low frequency firesetters (once or twice in the past 12 months); and high frequency firesetters (3 + times) on measures of mental health and substance use.

Results:  Twenty-seven percent of youth reported firesetting during the past year. Of these, 13.7% reported one or two episodes, and 13.5% reported 3 or more episodes. Firesetting was more prevalent among males and among those in high school. Youth who began firesetting before age 10 were more likely to report frequent firesetting during the past year. Compared to non-firesetters, the firesetting groups had elevated risk profiles. Desisters and low frequency firesetters were more likely to report psychological distress, binge drinking, frequent cannabis use, and sensation seeking. Low frequency firesetters also reported higher rates of delinquent behavior, suicidal intent, and low parental monitoring than non-firesetters. High frequency firesetters reported elevated risk ratios for all of these risk indicators plus other illicit drug use. The cumulative number of risk indicators was positively associated with firesetting severity.

Conclusions:  Firesetting is associated with psychopathology and substance use during adolescence. Findings highlight the need for programs to address the mental health and substance use problems that co-occur with firesetting.