Talking about risk and resilience

A stacking rings activity to stimulate conversation around risk & resilience.

Our stacking rings activity was inspired by Dr Jehannine Austin's jar analogy. 
We are born with a certain amount of genetic vulnerability (yellow balls), but over time, we also accumulate stressful experiences (orange triangles), which can tip us over into an active episode of mental ill-health (full jar).
Protective factors such as exercise and good sleep add 'rings' to the top of our mental health jar, and expand its capacity. 


Empty jar metaphor for mental ill-health    Jar metaphor for recovery from mental illness

[Jar Metaphor:
We are like an empty jar. We get filled up with genetic factors (yellow balls) and Environmental factors (orange triangles). 

  • With just the genetic factors in the jar, we are unaffected.
  • Over time we accumulate more environmental factors, which make us more vulnerable. However, at this point we are not experiencing an episode fo illness. 
  • It is only when the jar is full to the brim with a combination of genetic and environmental factors, that we experience an active episode of illness (reached threshold). 
  • If we remove some of the environmental factors, we can return to the vulnerable, but not actually ill phase. 
  • Alternatively, we can add protective factors (rings to the top of the jar) to raise our threshold point] 


For a family science festival audience, we adapted this analogy into a stacking rings activity. 
We use this activity to initiate conversations about mental health and resilience. 

Red, yellow and green rings stacked on a pole. Six dice representing the genetic, environmental, lifestyle and resilience factors


The stick represents a 'person'. 

Each roll of the dice adds a 'risk factor' (genetic, environmental or lifestyle). 
Some of the rings are thick (high risk), others are thin (low risk)
Sometimes you do not add a ring at all. 

If the top of the stack goes above the red line, the 'person' has become unwell. 

However, if you role a resilience factor such as meditation or social connections, you can move the red line (band) up the stick. 


  Watch on YouTube [This video has no sound]


Much of our research is focused around gaining a better understanding of how these factors interact. 

This activity was first delivered at the Edinburgh International Science Festival in April 2019. 

Man and small boy play stacking rings activity.       

This activity was also delivered at: 
Doors Open Day at Edinburgh MRC Institute of Genetics and Molecular Medicine (IGMM) on 28th September 2019
Midlothian Science Festival, Feel Good Science Day on 13th October 2019


Download a copy of the poster

PDF: PDF icon Risk Factors Poster.pdf

PowerPoint: File Risk Factors Poster.pptx

Poster listing risk factors for mental ill-health

[Poster: Who is at risk of mental ill-health?
The development of mental illness is rarely, if ever, caused by a single risk factor. 
It is a complex set of interactions, that researchers are still trying to understand. 

Genetic Factors
These are genetic factors that make people more or less susceptible to mental illness. 
Mental health is 'polygenic' - it depends on many hundreds of genes acting together. 
Even a gene that is strongly associated with mental ill-health, only increases a person's risk by a very small amount. 

Environmental Factors
These are external to the person and relate to the world in which they live and function e.g. 

  • Stressful life events (e.g. a death in the family)
  • Early childhood trauma
  • A physical health condition
  • Having children
  • Living arrangements
  • Low household income. 

Women are more likely that men to experience common mental health conditions such as anxiety or depression. 

Lifestyle Factors
Most things that affect your physical health can also affect your mental health e.g. 

  • smoking
  • poor sleep quality
  • poor diet/overweight
  • Alcohol or drug misuse 

Some things help us bounce back from hard times e.g. 

  • Exercise
  • Mindfulness/meditation
  • Close family and friends]