Keeping Voices Injured: Why Singers and Professional Actors Often Don’t Seek Treatment for Vocal Illness

Voice training demonstrations were part of the public information events at McGill School of Communication and Disorders Science for World Voice Day on April 16th. Credit: School of Communication Sciences and Disorders, McGill University; Photo background, author provided

Professional singers and actors are at increased risk for vocal injuries. Performers need to master their voices in a sophisticated way to meet the aesthetic demands of their work. Most people may not pay much attention to their own voices, but for performers, any minor change in their voice may prevent them from working and can seriously disrupt their lives and careers.

A common form of voice disorders is benign lesions of the vocal cords, such as nodules and polyps. Affected people may experience broken voices and difficulty singing high notes, for example.

Among professional singers, about 46% reported having a history of voice disorders, compared to 18% of the general population. For those in their early training, nearly 60 percent of dramatic performance students showed clinical signs of vocal dysfunction.

At McGill University’s Voice and Upper Respiratory Research Laboratory, we study a wide range of upper respiratory and laryngeal health conditions using computer models and cell cultures, as well as human studies. In the Canadian healthcare system, medical specialists who manage patients with voice disorders include hearing, nose and throat doctors (ENTs, also known as otorhinolaryngologists) and speech pathologists.

Stigma and vocal health

Stigma is a social phenomenon by which individuals are marked as different, allowing for discrimination and inequality. The stigma surrounding a disease often worsens the condition due to the stress it causes. In addition, people with health-related stigma are often reluctant to seek professional medical help. For example, people with mental illness such as depression and addiction are less likely to seek counseling because of the stigma surrounding these conditions.

Similarly, voice disorders also carry a stigma among performers. This has led interpreters to hesitate to seek appropriate and timely medical help. Broadway singers have reportedly preferred not to reveal that they have had a voice disorder because it could damage their career prospects.

Top view of healthy vocal cords and benign vocal cord injuries (nodules and polyps). Credit: Shutterstock

In addition to these external pressures, performers take responsibility for their vocal health problems, believing that they are the sign of an unqualified performer. In fact, even highly skilled and successful artists can have voice disorders. However, the scientific evidence for vocal stigma is mostly anecdotal.

For a master’s thesis project conducted in our lab, we wanted to find out how vocal stigma could affect Canadian performers. Specifically,

  1. Do Canadian singers and professional actors experience the stigma surrounding voice disorders?
  2. If so, are performers less likely to seek medical help when they experience vocal stigma?
  3. Who is likely to experience vocal stigma most strongly?

An online survey on vocal stigma was designed to answer these questions. With the help of the National Association of Teachers of Singing (NATS) and the Alliance of Canadian Cinema, Television and Radio Artists (ACTRA), 200 Canadian singers and actors between the ages of 21 and 65 were recruited to complete the 64-item survey. An additional 200 Canadians, with no experience in the performance industry, were also recruited to complete the same online survey as the study controls.

Vocal stigma affects Canadian performers

Overall, Canadian performers experienced 15% more vocal stigma than the study controls. Performers also showed less motivation and intention to seek help from the health professions if they had a vocal illness.

The study also found that younger performers and those with earlier voice disorders tend to experience more vocal stigma. Artists ’reputations are likely to be more vulnerable in their early careers, and people who have not had a voice disorder are less aware of vocal stigma.

A multidisciplinary workshop on vocal health for singers, actors and other professional voice users, presented jointly by McGill and the University of Bergen (Norway) on World Voice Day. Credit: School of Communication Sciences and Disorders, McGill University; Photo background, author provided

Our study also found that vocal stigma was characterized more by external pressures than by internal beliefs such as self-blame in Canadian artists. Performers feared losing both their current and future jobs if employers found out they had a voice disorder.

The consequent financial pressure may be exacerbated by the challenges of accessing specialized vocal health services, including long wait times for public ENT clinics and the high cost of private alternatives.

Possible solutions to break the vocal stigma

Like other stigmas, vocal stigma is a complex problem without a single solution. Voice health education and outreach could be part of the solution, with the potential to both reduce vocal stigma and help performers protect their voices.

For example, the McGill School of Communication Science and Disorders has held annual public seminars, roundtables, and free voice screenings for World Voice Day. We look forward to expanding this program to reach more artists across the country.

Improving interpreters’ access to services could also play a role. For example, improving employment coverage and health insurance for interpreters who require vocal medical care. Maintaining medical privacy is also important to ensure that the careers of performers are not unfairly harmed by past health issues.

The first step, however, is to raise awareness of voice stigma in the performance industry.

The new study on vocal injuries profiles hundreds of injured singers provided by The Conversation

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Quote: Keeping Voices Hush-hush Wounded: Why Professional Singers and Actors Often Don’t Seek Treatment for Vocal Illness (2022, June 14) Retrieved June 14, 2022

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