PhD student Hilary Power: from OCD to impact of chronic disease on kids’ mental health

By University Advancement and Communications Posted: July 9, 2020 10:00 a.m.

People with OCD are tormented by intrusive thoughts, images or urges which they try to relieve through compulsive behaviours and thoughts, such as repetitive handwashing or cleaning.
People with OCD are tormented by intrusive thoughts, images or urges which they try to relieve through compulsive behaviours and thoughts, such as repetitive handwashing or cleaning. Photo: stock

Access to research opportunities is vital for University of Regina graduate students as they look to shape and strengthen their academic careers. Recently, Hilary Power, a doctoral student in clinical psychology at the U of R, had the opportunity to celebrate the long-awaited publication of a research paper she participated in titled “Women Are at Greater Risk of OCD Than Men: A Meta-Analytic Review of OCD Prevalence Worldwide.” 

“As a clinician in training, any research you do contributes to how you practise,” says Power, who in 2017 was asked to participate in the study by her then-supervisor Dr. Emily Fawcett at Memorial University in Newfoundland. “It’s good for graduate students to get experience working with different professors, in different labs – it takes you out of your comfort zone. That’s one of the reasons why I chose to do my graduate studies at the U of R.” 

Released in the Journal of Clinical Psychiatry, the findings of their study are significant for the scientific community’s understanding of obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), and the paper is the first to provide a meta-analytic estimate of the prevalence of OCD in women and men around the world. 

Hilary Power is a PhD student in
Clinical Psychology at the U of R.
Photo: Rachel Krakauer

Most importantly, the researchers found that, worldwide, women are 1.6 times more likely than men to suffer from OCD at some point in their lifetime. People with OCD are tormented by intrusive thoughts, images or urges which they try to relieve through various compulsive behaviours and thoughts, such as repetitive handwashing, cleaning, obsessive counting or excessive checking of locks and appliances. 

Results from previous individual studies on OCD and its connection to gender have been mixed – in some cases, researchers found no difference in gender; in others, they found a higher occurrence of OCD in men. 

“If you do a meta-analysis, however, you’re combining samples across all studies done in a particular area, such as OCD,” explains Power. “You get a better idea of what you’re looking at and can form more accurate conclusions because you’re looking at a disorder across a larger sample than you’d find in one particular study.” 

Past studies have found that women are at greater risk than men for mood or anxiety disorders. By looking at these studies, Power and her colleagues were the first to link this increased risk in women to OCD in particular, rather than anxiety disorders as a broader classification. This singular focus on OCD creates a better opportunity for understanding the condition in its entirety, including the identification of possible factors in OCD development such as age, biology, environment, and sociology. 

According to their study, one factor that might be influencing the onset of OCD in women is hormones.

“There are clear gender differences in OCD in pediatric samples,” explains Power. “Boys are actually at greater risk of developing OCD than girls, but the risk swings the other way with an increased risk for girls once puberty hits.”

“There are also psychological and sociological factors to consider,” says Power. “Women express OCD differently than men. Women are more likely to have fears of contamination; whereas men are more likely to have sexual or religious obsessions, aggressive obsessions or compulsions.” 

The negative consequences of these obsessions, when left untreated, can be devastating, such as causing difficulty in relationships or lower marriage rates, lower job productivity or job loss, or higher health-care use and costs because a person with OCD may feel driven to seek frequent medical help. 

With the fear of contamination or germs being a common symptom of OCD, Power anticipates that the current COVID-19 pandemic will create a source of new research on the disorder.

“It’ll be important to look at how the pandemic is affecting the onset or development of OCD symptoms, or how it’s affecting people who are already living with fears of contamination and fears of germs, while the virus is ongoing.”

Now that the paper has been published and Power is at the U of R, she is returning to her main area of research in clinical psychology where she is helping to explain how kids cope with chronic health conditions, specifically cystic fibrosis, and the strain it puts on their mental health. Her research will help to develop treatment strategies and solutions to support them.  

“Graduate-level education is accompanied by elevated expectations and responsibilities, especially in clinical psychology graduate programs,” explains Dr. Kristi Wright, Associate Professor in psychology at the U of R, who is supervising Power’s doctoral work here. “While balancing these expectations in course work, research, and clinical experience, Hilary has pursued additional research opportunities outside of her thesis and dissertation research, such as this OCD project. Hilary’s diligent development of research skills will take her a long way in carving out her own unique program of research at the U of R.”