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mental health mondays :: enough to drive you crazy

angelina in the blue dress, second from right
just because i have no patience for shows like "american idol", "the voice" or anything involving the karsahians doesn't mean that i'm entirely immune to the meretricious charms of reality television. i try to take a moment every day to hate myself for finding "duck dynasty" amusing, despite my fundamental disagreements with the robertson family on just about everything and my awareness of the artifice of the show itself. but one reality show that feels less guilty and more pleasure is "canada's worst driver", a distinctly canadian take on a show that's appeared in different national versions for over a decade, starting [as many reality shows do] in great britain.

the canadian version has actually had a longer run than any of the other "worst driver" series not because our drivers are that bad, but because the focus of the show is not an anti-celebration of the bad drivers, but on educating them on how to become good [or at least competent] drivers. which makes the whole process somewhat redemptive rather than just infuriating. relatively few of the drivers are the risible characters you would expect [and in fact, those that are truly unrepentant are summarily dealt with and removed from the show so as not to impede the others]. most of the candidates are perfectly aware of how terrible they are, if only because they have the record to prove it. many are inexperienced and/ or lack confidence. others are in denial without being bellicose and it is those people who tend to wind up with the end of season trophies.

although there is no shortage of mockery on the show, the candidates are also treated in what i would see as a uniquely canadian fashion: through the season, we get to know them, get to see their humanity, get to hear their side of the story. it becomes easy to sympathize at least a little with most of them, even if you wouldn't want them driving in your city.

this year, the show has done their "worst of the worst" series, inviting back the "champions" of previous seasons along with those selected by viewers as deserving of a repeat performance. of those, the person the host said he believed to be the most likely candidate for the title of "canada's worst driver ever" was eventually removed for mental health issues. in removing her from consideration, the show actually does a public service, highlighting a serious problem in the treatment of mental illness in canada.

FIND OUT WHAT, ALBEIT WITH SHOW SPOILERS, AFTER THE BREAK...


the candidate in question was angelina marcantognini, who comes off like a cross between a barbie doll and a mob wife. she had already distinguished herself as the "winner" of cwd season 5 and as the candidate who had failed the most driving challenges in the show's entire run. at the beginning of the first episode of this season, she was unable to drive herself to the "rehab centre" because she was too hungover. and that wasn't the only time she showed up the worse for wear either. indeed, she seemed to be hung more often than not.

when viewers originally met angelina, she was frequently seen popping xanax to help control her all-too-obvious anxiety. too often, she met driving challenges head on- literally- because she panicked and closed her eyes when faced with a decision to make or a procedure to follow. failures both in season five and in her return performance were typically met with raging tantrums, further showcasing her inability to deal with just about anything. at first blush, these seem to be the reactions of an entitled princess [angelina gave her career in season five as "stay at home girlfriend", indicating that she had someone to take care of her], but the show's producers and in particular their resident psycho-therapist believed that her reactions were evidence of a much deeper problem.

and at one point, angelina had evidently had a doctor who agreed. her general practitioner had prescribed her xanax to help control her frequent panic attacks, but in the years between her first and second appearances, that doctor had retired and she had been unable to find another one. angelina was very aware of the problems her anxiety caused and was on a waiting list to see a psychiatrist, but the waiting list for her area [sudbury in northern ontario] was years long. so as of her appearance this season, she was still waiting to talk to a psychiatrist, but had no doctor she could go to in the meantime to get medication to control her problems.

now, remember that even when she had her xanax prescription, angelina was still crowned canada's worst driver and still failed more tests than any other driver. she wasn't exactly doing well. but her tendency to meltdown at the first hint that things might not go her way clearly wasn't going to get any better without the xanax and she repeatedly referred to her frequent drinking as "self-medicating". she's someone who would likely benefit from professional help and she's someone who desperately wants to get it. but she can't. and she's been cut off from even the minor relief that a prescription would provide.

for those not familiar with ontario geography, sudbury is a town of just over 100,000 [160,000 in the greater sudbury area] north of georgian bay [an enclave of lake huron]. although inland from the great lakes, its landscape is peppered with smaller lakes and, more significantly, with mineral deposits from an ancient asteroid impact. the town's history was dominated for a century by mines and mining but, as the industry began to decline, sudbury has undergone a conversion into a service centre for the surrounding region. although by no means a major metropolis, it is the largest city in northern ontario. its politics lean centre-left, favouring political parties that have generally championed access to health care. there is no reason to think that it should be so difficult for someone to get help for a relatively common mental disorder.

but apparently, it is. apparently, a person can wait years.

when we think of the dangers of mental illness, we tend to think in the binary of the harm someone is likely to do to themselves and the harm they are likely to purposely inflict on others. what gets lost is that a mental illness is pervasive, shaping the way an individual deals with even basic decisions. when those decisions need to be made in microseconds and involve something the size of a car, the dangers of mental illness take on an entirely new and frightening dimension. but what other options are available? someone living in a city like sudbury can't very well put their life on hold for years while they wait for their turn in the psychiatrist lottery. you'd like to think that someone like angelina could give up driving, but for many that may simply not be possible.

there is the hope of a happy ending for angelina. ultimately the producers of "canada's worst driver" were able to pull string and get her into psychological rehab. but not everyone from towns, smaller cities and rural areas in canada is going to have a television producer to go to bat for them. they're going to go on with the rest of their lives while they wait patiently for help and they will probably endanger themselves and others in a dozen different, invisible ways because they feel they simply don't have a choice.

canada's worst driver airs on the discovery channel. you can read more about it here.

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