Empathy Rock Garden & Personalized Potions

A Comparison of Public Interventions for Expressions of Mental Health

I need a potion to help me... and I miss my friends on the other side of the world

Jen Brown, Carlie Guilfoile, Michal Luria, Uluwehi Mills, and Supawat Vitoorakaporn

Originally published on Medium


An article comparing two projects undertaken as part of New Ways To Think: Materializing Mental Health, September–October 2018



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

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.

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


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”.

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

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

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.

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.

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
  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


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.

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

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


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

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

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.

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

Some people inserted humor into their messages too

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.

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.

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”.

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

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.

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

Closing Reflections

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

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.