Empathy Rock Garden & Personalized Potions

A Comparison of Public Interventions for Expressions of Mental Health

By Jen Brown, Carlie Guilfoile, Michal Luria, Uluwehi Mills, Supawat Vitoorakaporn.


Although experiencing mental health challenges is universal, the ways individuals communicate such challenges are unique; while some are very open about their personal struggles, others are reticent — this could be part of one’s individual personality, but perhaps also for a host of other reasons, including gender, sociocultural and environmental norms. In a competitive university setting such as Carnegie Mellon, this is no less true, and under intense academic pressure, students may often lack the opportunity to address their mental health challenges in a positive way.

The bottom line, though, is that experts agree that communicating about one’s own mental health in some form or another is hugely beneficial. We decided to focus our efforts on developing methods for tackling communication hurdles. In our first intervention, which we named Personalized Potions, participants engage in a stylized, facilitated activity that takes the burden of communication off by being highly structured yet light-hearted. In the other, called the Empathy Rock Garden, communication was anonymous and solitary, allowing participants to be as expressive as they desired without fear of stigma. Both interventions have a low barrier for participation, being targeted at passersby who can spend less than five minutes interacting but still (hopefully) reap the benefits of self-expression.

Our two interventions have similar intents, but very different executions, to give us the chance to observe the benefits and challenges associated with each with regards to facilitation and gleaning meaningful data.

Personalized Potions


We hoped the participants would think about what they need in their lives in an indirect way. By putting the twist and comfortable or presentation of emotions, as ingredients in a potion, people maybe more open to talking about them. We asked participants to identify something they needed help with in their life. They would then create a “potion” to help them tackle it. We provided the ingredients for the potion, which were all emotions like “hope”, “trust”, and “dedication”.

The project is freeform and individualized in subject; participants can use the activity to address whatever aspect of their own mental health that they choose, however big or small. The goal is to give them an opportunity to express self-compassion, and to pause and reflect on what they need for their own well-being.

Early Prototypes and Testing

We tested the potions concept initially in the classroom. We had small vials and a wide range of materials, pebbles, beads, and moss. We found that too wide of a range of materials was difficult to use, and hindered the users experience. The differing physical qualities of the materials became unimportant, as the names of the ingredients became more defined.

We settled on colored sugar but had some difficulties with it clumping and participants had difficulty getting it into the vial. It took up a lot of time, and people became frustrated. The materials played a part in the participants emotions as well. To ensure ease of use the sugar was dried and sifted for the set up.

Two breakthroughs came when we spoke with some counselors in CAPS, who suggested adding a “Secret Ingredient”. This would allow the participants to create their own need if we don’t have it as one of our chosen items. We also wanted participants to think of an “activator” for their potion. We wanted them to take one step or one action towards reaching their goal, and therefore “activating” the potion. They also suggested a “magic 8 ball” approach for the activators. Instead of the testers suggesting things to people, we could allow them to select an activator out of the bag. It would be something broad that could be applicable to most goals.

We conducted a trial run in an office setting to great success. Participants interacted with the ingredients in various ways: some spent careful time choosing them, while others immediately knew exactly what they wanted. Some worked through their reasoning aloud while others pondered internally. All were glad to be able to take their potion home, with one participant saying, “This is a nice motivational thing to keep around here.”

Participants of the Personalized Potions creating their own potions.


Components of this activity includes:

  1. Empty vials
  2. Colored Sugar in jars to serve as an abstraction of how much values of each (honesty, hope, compassion, trust, discipline, courage) they need to achieve a certain goal. Although the potion is not designed to be ingested, using an edible ingredient felt like a safe choice.
  3. Spoons and funnel to serve as a slow and deliberate reflection of putting one’s values into a potion.
  4. Wildcard Bag to assist participants who are stumped by how to activate the potion.
  5. Labels & String to act act as easy method to capture data as the vials are given away.

The Final Exhibit

  1. The exibit was set up in Resnik dorm near the elevator, on a Monday evening between 7–9pm. Two facilitators talked with participants and asked them to participate. The setting allowed the participants to be conversant with the facilitators, and with other individuals who came by. It provided an environment for conversation, and to engage with other passers-by.
  2. Participants receive a clear glass vial. They are prompted to think about what a potion could help them accomplish in the near future. The participants write down their concern on the potion’s label.
  3. They the fill the vial with “ingredients” (in the form of colored sugar) that will help them towards their stated goal. The ingredients boast names like “Compassion”, “Trust”, “Discipline”, among others, with one wild card ingredient they can name as they see fit. As they fill their vials, the facilitator writes the contents on the label.
  4. Once the vial is filled, the final step is an “activation”: like any good potion, it doesn’t work without a phrase or an action. Participants are free to write whatever they believe to be an actionable first step, or they can draw an inspirational phrase from a bag: “Don’t try so hard.” “Breathe.” “Get some rest.”
  5. The facilitator finishes the label and gives the potion to the participant as a keepsake for continued reflection.


  1. Discipline (Purple) is the most depleted values from our 2 hour session.
  2. There were certain ingredients that were used more often than others. On the whole CMU student feels like like they need more discipline in their life. It was one of the first ingredients people added. The second most commonly used one was hope followed by the Secret Ingredient. The secret ingredient could be anything the participants wanted, but there were not many repeat needs, almost every one was unique.
  3. Often time the activator wild card of “rest more” is discarded.
  4. Playfully abstracting heavy questions such as “what are your values”, “what do you want to achieve”, and “how do you plan on achieving it” via an activity helps ease the conversation and help participants open up. Participants were very open to talking about their emotions, and why they were feeling stressed, upset, lonely or afraid. This interface allowed total strangers to share emotions, and talk through what they need in their lives. The outcome was incredibly positive and opened a communication door between the testers and participants. The process of identifying a need, and working through it, is something that most people don’t often do. They don’t often have the tools to identify, analyze, and act on an emotional problem, let along in a short period of time. The potions facilitated that process, and allowed people to lightly approach something difficult, and to have a tool to talk about.

Empathy Rock Garden


Our final concept and physicalization of mental health, the Empathy Rock Garden, is a space where participants can express what is weighing on their mind, by writing on a rock, or they can signal to others that they are not alone, by placing a pebble near another rock. The experience is anonymous, quiet, and collaborative.

Empathy Rock Garden was inspired by two core concepts and experiences. Cairns, or human-made piles of stones, were an early influence that reflect our concept’s roots in nature and stewardship. When brainstorming, we spoke about both the therapeutic qualities of balancing rocks and their oft-purpose in helping to signal to others a direction or path, perhaps on a hiking trail. Secondly, we were inspired by a teammate’s experience expressing her anxiety by placing heavy objects in spaces inside her home that represented her mental state. An example might be, placing a heavy rock under the bed when she’s feeling recluse and anxious.

Early Prototypes and Testing

In our early prototypes of the concept, we used tape to section off a table into different categories, such as school and family, that people might feel stressed about. We also mocked up a scale on the radius of the table, that might help people measure and place the intensity of their feelings. After in-class testing, we came to the conclusion that this was too prescriptive and we should give participants more flexibility and freedom. Secondly, we experimented with the materiality of the components. Within that exploration, we discussed whether people would write directly on a rock or on a note, which would then be rubber banded to the rock. We asked questions like: Should the rocks be natural or painted ? Dark or light? Stacked or spaced? Placed outside or inside? Through rapid prototyping and testing with the class, we learned that people wanted to be able to easily read the messages on the rocks and they also wanted it to feel private and calm. Based on that feedback, we moved forward with unaltered natural materials and black sharpies.


Due to the nature of the Empathy Rock Garden, it was important that we developed components that could stand alone and communicate without human facilitation. The components of the experience include: smooth medium-size stones, small pebbles, muslin baskets and tablecloth, black sharpies and bamboo signs.

The Final Exhibit

Our final exhibit was located on the 4th floor of the CMU Hunt library, where we hoped people would be able to quietly interact with it. The exhibit included a large 6’ table with a few rocks that we placed as encouragement for people to participate, as well as to provide some indication of what they are asked to do. New rocks to write on were placed on a table nearby, along with signs that had some explanatory text.

We hoped that people would interact with the exhibit in a circular interaction — first, encounter the sign that introduces the exhibit as an ‘empathy rock garden’, then walk halfway around the table to reach the additional rocks, while reflecting on what other people wrote, and finally come the other side of the table and place their own rock, or rocks, on the table.


Interaction: Due to the nature of the exhibit, we were unable to observe when people interacted with it. Thus, our findings stem from observing the rock people left behind, and from few observations that we observed when one of the researchers was around.

We noticed that many more participants placed small rocks on the table that symbolize empathy, rather than adding new ascribed rocks. This was even more common once there were many rocks on the table. Furthermore, we noticed that people interacted longer than just placing a single rock of empathy — some took a handful of rocks, and distributed them among the displayed rocks.

Content: we found a range of topics, from concrete things that are weighing people down (for example, a class), to more abstract thoughts. From happy, optimistic messages, to very difficult ones. It is not surprising, given our prompt, that most of the messages were related to negative affection.

Some people inserted humor into their messages too

We notices that messages with negative emotion tended to receive more ‘small rock attention’. This could be either because it was easier for people to relate to difficult emotions, or because they felt that people who wrote difficult things on the rocks need more empathy and support for fellow passersby.

Form: Most people used the rocks in a straightforward way — big rocks were placed where there was space, and small rocks anywhere near a big rock. We expected there to be more interaction between rocks, but there were very few that commented on another, or were placed next to another to indicate a relationship.

For the small rocks, people used them with more creativity. For example, people placed small rocks on top of a big one, or stacked them on top of each other. Some people created shapes using the small rocks, for example a shape of a cross next to the text “please save me”.

Inevitably we had some people diverge from the intended interaction. Some of it worked well, for example a humorous message about rocks, which many other people engaged with by placing small rocks. Some was not as great — one participant created a phallus shape that had to be fixed by one of the researchers. We learned this is something that needs to be considered when placing an exhibit in a quiet environment where people have privacy interacting — some people express themselves in a more playful way, that may not always suit the designers’ intention. This requires to occasionally intervene and decide whether it enhances the interaction or reduces from it.

Comparing Methods and Outcomes

Each intervention allowed for distinct takeaways for their participants. Personalized Potions was an opportunity for very individual reflection, and the artifact that participants received is a call-to-action to take charge of their mental health beyond their participation in the intervention. On the other hand, the artifacts of the Empathy Rock Garden were meant to be left behind, to act as a way for subsequent participants to reflect collectively over time. While the rock garden was perhaps a better method for the CMU population to consider their mental health as a community, the potions allowed for collective reflection as well — by observing how much of each ingredient was used, we could understand what the community overall considers to be necessary for their well-being.

We also learned that even with established rules for both interactions, participants found ways to express themselves outside of them. In many cases, this allowed for particularly poignant results that would not otherwise have been possible. In others, particularly with the unfacilitated interaction, the unexpected interactions did not contribute to the experience, and at worst compromised potential data points. We understand now that more structure to the projects allowed for more usable data to be collected, but allowing space for flexibility means that participants can contribute in ways we hadn’t previously considered.

Closing Reflections

In both cases, staging the interventions in the right environment seemed to matter greatly — the casual, light-hearted nature of the potion project, and the solitary reflection of the rock garden may not have been possible if staged in a different place or time. Having enthusiastic facilitators for the potions also helped keep communication flowing.

There are plans for Personalized Potions to be staged again in Resnik later in the fall; it will be interesting to see what participants decide to tackle with their potions in a different setting, and at a different time in the academic year. Although there are no current plans to revive the Empathy Rock Garden, we enjoyed watching the exhibition develop over time and would gladly stage it again. With slightly more facilitation, we might be able to improve our ability to gather measurable data — by limiting the number of rocks a participant can use, for example. Regardless, though, both of these projects had the kind of impact that we were hoping to have on participants — they were able to communicate in meaningful ways, and we hope that these conversations continue beyond the life of the exhibits.



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