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Firesetters with intellectual disabilities in Denmark

Søren Holst (Kofoedsminde, Rødby, Denmark)
Dorte Lystrup (Kofoedsminde, Rødby, Denmark)
John L. Taylor (Northumbria University – Coach Lane Campus, Newcastle upon Tyne, UK)

Journal of Intellectual Disabilities and Offending Behaviour

ISSN: 2050-8824

Article publication date: 3 December 2019

Issue publication date: 3 December 2019




The purpose of this paper is to gather epidemiologicalinformation concerning firesetters with intellectual disabilities (ID) in Denmark to identify the assessment and treatment needs of this population and inform further research in this area.


The records held by the Danish Ministry of Justice concerning all firesetters with ID convicted of deliberate firesetting were reviewed for the period January 2001 to December 2010 inclusive. File information was extracted for 83 offenders concerning: demographic and personal characteristics; mental health characteristics; offending behaviour; offence-specific factors; and motives for offending. A sub-group of seven offenders were interviewed to explore some of the themes that emerged from the file review.


The majority of study participants were male and were classified as having mild ID and around 50 per cent had additional mental health problems. Many came from disturbed and deprived backgrounds. Two-thirds had set more than one fire and over 60 per cent had convictions for offences other than firesetting. Alcohol was involved in the firesetting behaviour in a significant proportion of cases (25 per cent). The motives for setting fires were – in descending order – communication (of anger, frustration and distress), fire fascination and vandalism. Interviews with participants indicated the important communicative function of firesetting, the difficulties people had in talking about and acknowledging their firesetting behaviour, and lack of access to targeted interventions.

Research limitations/implications

Interventions for Danish firesetters with ID, as for firesetters with ID elsewhere, need to target the communicative function of this behaviour, along with offenders’ lack of insight and initial reluctance to accept responsibility for their behaviour and associated risks. Adjunctive treatment is required to address the psychiatric comorbidity experienced by many of these offenders, along with the alcohol use/misuse that is associated with many of these offences.


This is the first study concerning nature and needs of firesetters with ID in Denmark.



Holst, S., Lystrup, D. and Taylor, J.L. (2019), "Firesetters with intellectual disabilities in Denmark", Journal of Intellectual Disabilities and Offending Behaviour, Vol. 10 No. 4, pp. 72-81.



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