Article: Mental health in cinema: How System Crasher is breaking down barriers

This Children’s Mental Health Week, mental health campaigner Ellen Jones looks at the upcoming film System Crasher and the connection between cinema and wellbeing.

System Crasher is a refreshing and much-needed exploration of a child’s mental state as she deals with being passed round and round Germany’s Child Protective Services. 

As a society, we are often quick to dismiss loud and violent behaviour in children as a sign of their innate naughtiness or as the consequence of poor parenting. Rarely do we consider that these behaviours might be a child’s way of communicating a very real and valid distress. 

According to the World Health Organisation, half of all mental illnesses begin by the age of 14 and three-quarters by mid-20s. And yet, children’s mental health is something which is seldom represented in mainstream, let alone on the big screen. 

Interview with Wendy Thorogood of the Association of Child Protection Professionals

The film’s title derives from a phrase director Nora Fingscheidt heard social workers used to refer to girls as young as fourteen, who were too complex for care systems to handle. These girls subsequently found themselves living in women’s refuges and although the film features a distinctly younger protagonist, audiences feel the palpable tension that arises from concerns about Benni’s future and what that will look like. 

The relationship between cinema and mental health historically has often been fraught with tension, portraying mental illness either as a terrible tragedy, a catastrophic life-event or worryingly, linking mental illness with dangerous and violent behaviour. Although in 2020, discussions around mental health are increasingly common and understanding of the fact that mental health, like physical health, is something that everyone has, cinematic portrayals of what goes on inside our heads and how that affects our lives have remained elusive, until now.  

Mental illness has often been presented as something irrational, but as we learn more and more about Benni, who has grown up against a background of abuse and neglect, her violent outbursts whilst not excused, are elucidated. We first meet Benni in a psychiatrist’s appointment, having her medication increased to help control her behaviour, something she seems not particularly keen on, but seemingly there is nothing more that can be done. 

System Crasher asks, albeit subtly, some incredibly important questions about the nature of mental health care, trauma and healing which are still being debated.  Why is the onus placed upon the distressed child who is characterised as a burden? After all, it is not that the adult characters, whether they be social workers, psychiatrists or teachers, are uncompassionate or not trying to do right by Benni. It is that the system leaves nowhere for her to go. Even unconventional approaches have not worked.

What does it say about a system that a child who has been subject to trauma that she is able to destroy the infrastructure so easily? This is a pressing issue in mental health care in most places, where the infrastructure does not exist to support those who need it most. 

Nothing in System Crasher is wildly unexpected; and as someone who has mental health issues and who works with mentally ill youth, scarcely do mental health portrayals get the tone right, balancing the need for realism without being intentionally sensationalist. For this reason, System Crasher is a rare gem. 

Obviously, not every person has been subject to abuse, neglect or been failed by the care system. These are Benni’s own personal circumstances. But, many people have experienced trauma of one sort or other and there are children in every town in every country who need support and are not able to access it. System Crasher forces audiences to ask uncomfortable questions,  but necessary ones: how are we failing our young people and why are we not striving for better? 

Children’s Mental Health Week shines a light on the importance of children and young people’s mental health, launched by Place2Be, who provide mental health support in UK schools. It takes place from 3rd -9th February 2020 and this years theme is “Find Your Brave.” You can find lots of resources to support work around this here.

Visit Inclusive Cinema for more information on how cinemas can screen films to broaden understanding about mental health experiences, and ignite important discussions.

For more information on how to book System Crasher (out on 27th March), visit


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