How can play and co-design help shape university mental health policies?

Materializing Mental Health

The Challenge

Today, most university often surveys its student body yearly, but surveys rarely capture the qualitative nature of emotions and provide little emotional support from being heard. How can we design an experience to allow participants to express their feelings better and capture better mental health data to inform policy?

The Outcome

Two workshops that physicalises the student body’s mental health and enable better mental health policy conversation. Our methods are now published as pioneering ways in how playfulness can be used visualise qualitative data. The stories from this workshop was used as a case study during the university's board meeting.


Selected workshop for Mozilla Festival Nuerodiversity Space

Published in Creative Approaches to Health Education


CMU Counseling and Psychological Services (CaPS)


1 month

My Team

Uluwehi Mills
Michal Luria
Jennifer Brown
Dan Lockton

My Role

Interaction Design


No students ever says:

"I love mental health survey!"

Carnegie Mellon is ranked the top 3 most depressed school in the US.

After two suicides in 2016, the school puts out a mandatory annual survey for student mental health. This is highly impersonal. Students often rush to finish these by ticking the middle box to finish class, and the results are at best inaccurate. People often felt that the survey were performative, and that their voices were unheard.

A meme about the mental crisis on campus.

What we did

Personalized Potions 🧪

Would 20 psycho-grams of “Hope” be helpful for you?

We translated complex questions such as "what challenges are you facing" into physical play to help people open up and be receptive to reflection. Here, play allowed people to think in a light-hearted environment and manipulate their the material at hand to better understand their inner world’s needs. The "potions" they produce also serves as reminder with concrete actionables.


  • People enjoyed this a lot more than the survey even though it's literally contained the same questions
  • Students wanted more "discipline", even though the average CMU student work/studies for more than 50 hour per week.

A sample potion for “focus” that requires you to “do not be so hard on yourself” to activate.

Physical play helps people have fun with reflection while allowing us to collect data.

Empathy Rock Gardens 🪨

What is weighing on your mind?

Empathy Rock Garden is a space designed for people to share what is "what is weighing on their mind" through creating a participatory display. Passer-by were invited to take a rock, write a personal message on it, and place it in the garden. They were also encouraged to take and place small rocks in the garden to signal to others that they're not alone.


The first few rocks started with people writing about their struggles, but by the end of the week people were leaving encouraging messages adjacent to those who're struggling to encourage them.

A participant expressing empathy towards the mental weight of “miss my friends on the other side of the world”.


50+ hours per week of work, but you want more discipline?

Our workshop became the conversation piece of the school's board meeting on mental health.

Our workshop was selected from 20 to be presented to the university’s board. The findings that students wanted more “discipline” despite putting in more than 50+ hours per week troubled many. This led to a deeper investigation into each departments’ role in assignment expectation.

Next Workshop: Futures for Autonomous Cars