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Culver remains true to the mission of nurturing mind, spirit, and body

Tom Coyne

Supporting students has been the mission at Culver for 128 years.


Sept. 22, 2022

Students at Culver Academies are hearing a common message when they gather for events this academic year: this is a challenging school and these are extraordinarily difficult times. Help is available.

“Make sure to seek support out from a counselor, a resident director or Emotional Support Services if you or another friend needs it,” Culver Girls Academy Dean of Schools M. Lynn Rasch ’76 said at the second annual CGA Leader Induction ceremony in August. “We want to support each other. Please don’t hesitate to reach out if you know somebody who needs a little extra support.”

The same theme also is being heard at Culver Military Academy events, and at many other events where Culver students, faculty, or staff gather.

Another point being stressed by Culver leaders is that people shouldn’t think about mental health and emotional health only when they are feeling anxious, depressed, or dealing with some other issue. Mental health is a way of life. It is staying healthy by connecting with others and helping others, being physically active, getting enough sleep, developing coping skills and developing a sense of purpose.

“I'm trying to get kids and the community to understand that mental health or emotional wellness is very different than what people think it is. It's your everyday,” said Darrell Knowlton, director of Emotional Support Services at Culver.

That is why Culver offers so many opportunities for students, faculty, and staff to make sure they are taking care of their mind, spirit, and body. This is not new at Culver. Supporting students has been the mission at Culver for 128 years by developing and nurturing the whole individual. Culver’s intentional focus on whole-person wellness is unique among boarding schools in the United States.

But Culver is constantly changing and evolving in what it offers to meet the needs of students, faculty, and staff. A myriad of programs are available to help deal with everything from homework to budget planning, to eating disorders, to family problems, to mental health crisis.

“The thing we want students to be aware of is all the support they do have,” said Dan Davidge, chairman of Culver’s Wellness Education Department.

Listening to students

Davidge said his department’s job to listen to students and educate them in ways to manage emotions, appreciate the perspectives of others, cope with stress, and make responsible decisions.

“We’re always looking for trends. What should we teach? What do these kids need to know?” Davidge said. “You go to the basics: Sleep, nutrition, exercise. But really in the last five years or so, we've really seen a real trend toward emotional wellness. This started with the kids wanting to know more.”

Culver not only has a Wellness Department, it also requires every student each year to take wellness classes, such as “Foundations of Health Behavior,” “Principles of Lifetime Fitness,” and “Health Issues.”

The classes help students recognize stress and understand what stress is and the effects it has on their bodies, Davidge said. It also teaches them ways to cope.


Students at Culver Academies have many opportunities to relieve stress.


“What tools can you put in place when you’re stressed out?” Davidge said.

Davidge said he frequently starts classes with five to 10 minutes of meditation.

“Just trying to get them to calm their brain down and focus on the present,” he said. “They have a lot going on.”

Pandemic aftereffects on mental health

An even greater emphasis has been placed on wellness nationwide in the past year because of the aftereffects of the Covid-19 pandemic. People reported increased symptoms of stress, anxiety, depression, and insomnia. The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that between August 2020 and February 2021 the percentage of adults with recent symptoms of a depressive or anxiety disorder increased from 36.4 percent to 41.5 percent.

The American Academy of Pediatrics issued a report last year declaring a national emergency in adolescent mental health. It said its members were caring for young people with soaring rates of depression, anxiety, trauma, and loneliness.

The CDC issued a warning in March of an accelerating mental health crisis among adolescents, with more than 4 in 10 teens reporting they feel “persistently sad or hopeless.” The CDC said one of the most important things for teenagers is to have a sense of being cared for, supported, and belonging at school. Youth who felt “school connectedness” through adults and peers at school were significantly less likely than those who did not to report persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness (35 percent vs. 53 percent).

The CDC says teenagers with poor mental health may struggle with school, decision-making, and their health.

High-achieving students feel pressure to succeed in the classroom, on the athletic field, and are constantly comparing themselves to fellow students and other teenagers they see on social media.

Culver taking steps to make sure students feel connected

Culver created an Emotional Wellness Working Group this year to see what steps can be taken to help move the needle in the right direction with regards to student emotional help on campus.

“Our thought was, ‘Let’s get a group of people together to chart a pathway on how we can best support our students,’ ” Davidge said.

Culver understands that providing an outstanding education is not enough at a boarding school, Davidge said. Culver has, and always will, look for new ways to provide more opportunities to provide students the support they need while living away from home.

 “You’ve got 15-year-old kids from around the world moving here to Culver, Indiana, so it makes sense that we want to make sure they know how to care for themselves,” Davidge said.

How that is accomplished, though, is always changing. Culver wants to make sure students get the help and care they need. The CDC said it is important that schools provide opportunities for academic, social, mental health, and physical health services. Culver would add spiritual health to that.

Making sure Culver students know help is available

The most pressing concern is making sure Culver students who are stressed or facing other mental health or emotional health challenges know that help is available.

“Our kids’ value and worth system has been just completely upended,” Knowlton said. “There’s no more ‘normal.’ When someone says, ‘Oh, this is the new normal,’ that’s assuming we’re all OK with what the new normal is.”

Knowlton said he knew when schools across the country shut down in March 2020 because of COVID that a wave of mental health issues would follow. When students first returned to campus the following August, his department was responding to students in crisis at all hours of the day and night.

Last year, the clinic was still dealing with students in crisis, but fewer were coming in after-hours. Crisis can come in many forms. For example, one student from another country hadn’t been home in two years because of COVID. When a close family member died, the student didn’t have money to get home for the funeral. Culver helped the student get home.

“To me, that’s mental health. That’s emotional wellness,” Knowlton said. “To me, sending him to go pay respects to his family member was just as important as any other medical or mental health (service) we could have done for him.”


Throughout the school year Culver gives students opportunities to stay physically active.


Students needing help can go to the health clinic at any time

The number of students seeking crisis counseling has dropped steadily and now most students are making scheduled visits to receive help. A student requesting help will get an appointment scheduled within 24 hours and will meet with a counselor within seven school days. But a student needing urgent care can walk to the clinic at any time and talk to a counselor.

“It’s letting kids know it’s OK to not be OK. You can come over and talk to somebody,” Knowlton said. “Our job is to meet the kids where they are when they need us.”

There are many different reasons people seek help, from homesickness to parents getting divorced, to disrupted eating to numerous other problems. Some students come over feeling overwhelmed.

“This is a place for kids to come over and raise their hand and say, ‘I need a little bit of a break. I don’t want to leave. I love this place. But right now, I just can't.’ We give kids the opportunity to press pause. It's OK,” Knowlton said.

He said the goal is to get students quickly back into the classroom.

“What we do is try to help kids recover on the run as much as we can,” Knowlton said. “Because that means we're still moving forward. That's teaching them how to have emotional struggles at times but keep moving forward. That's the key.” 

Knowlton said the most important thing for him and others on his staff is to develop relationships with students, knowing they can be trusted.

Strong relationships with adults can help adolescents

The CDC said one way to help struggling adolescents is for them to build strong relationships with adults. Teenagers need to know someone cares about them.

“We are really interested in this,” Davidge said. Who is your person? Every student should have a person they can turn to. I need to make sure you’ve got a person and that you’re not alone.”

Knowlton said Culver has an abundance of adults who care, including counselors, resident directors (which CMA added this year), military mentors, mentors, officers in charge, coaches, and especially teachers.

“I’ve never been around anywhere that so many professionals are talking about mental health,” Knowlton said.

Davidge said one of the points he wants to stress to students is that they can seek help no matter what the issue is.

“We want to let students know that nothing is too small or too big to talk about,” Davidge said.

If you ask most students what is stressing them out, homework is most frequently the top answer, Davidge said. But he said when you dig a little deeper, the reason many students are stressed by homework is that quite possibly they are not managing their time as well as they could. They have a lot on their plates and influences and distractions like social media sites and the telephone at times can affect academic production. We have another group of concerned adults on campus looking into a new phone policy at Culver based on the science behind the distraction of these two areas.

Culver teachers are taking a look at whether smartphones may be a cause of stress for students. Recent studies indicate that excessive smartphone use is associated with problems of mental health and impaired psychological well-being.

Culver will examine this school year whether limiting smartphone use can not only improve mental health, but also improve campus culture by cutting down on distractions and increasing social interaction.

The idea is to minimize negative influences and maximize positive influences.


Culver offers students some unique ways to blow off steam.


Athletics emphasizes moderation

Athletics also plays a major role in mental wellness, with nearly 80 percent of students at Culver Academies involved in sports. Athletic director Kevin Cox said Culver emphasizes moderation to keep student-athletes from putting too much stress on themselves.

“We have to balance athletically the pursuit of excellence, which we absolutely champion. We have students who are achievement-oriented individuals. And we want to support their pursuit of excellence in all areas of their life. But it has to be within moderation,” Cox said. “What’s the main thing they’re here for? They’re here for academics.”


The mind, spirit, and body approach has been a way of life at Culver for generations of students.


Many outsiders believe athletes at a boarding school can practice much longer than students at other schools because they are on campus all day. But at Culver, practices are held from 4:15 p.m. to 6 p.m., which in some sports means their practices are shorter than at other schools. 

“There's a law of diminishing returns if you do too much physically, mentally, and emotionally,” Cox said. “Athletically what we're trying to do on a day-to-day basis is provide a window for each of our students to pursue excellence and to not have that pursuit of excellence have a negative impact in other areas of their life.”

Cox said athletes who are feeling stress because of competition shouldn’t hesitate to seek help because Culver can be difficult.

“It's intentionally difficult because that’s what generates growth,” Cox said. “You grow through failure. You don't grow through constant success. There has to be a point at which in order to find your peak or your potential, there's some struggle involved in that.”

Spirituality at Culver

Spirituality also is a major factor at Culver. Students are required to attend a spiritual life service each week. They have access to services for Catholics, Protestants, Jews, Muslims, Hindu, Latter-day Saints, Unitarian Universalists, those practicing nature spirituality and guided meditation, and a Philosopher’s Café.

“What does it even mean to be spiritually well?” asked the Rev. Sam Boys, spiritual director at Culver.

He said it depends on the person. But in general, spiritual wellness is a feeling of connectedness with something bigger than ourselves.

  “For a religious person, that could be a part of God's creation. For a non-religious person, it could be I'm a part of my dorm or my unit or something like this. Some bigger thing.”


Spirituality is important at Culver.


Boys said he sees spiritual wellness as being self-aware and able to self-regulate emotions.

“So self-awareness can be: Who am I? What are my beliefs? What are my traditions? Do I have a religious foundation? Do I not? What are my virtues and values? What are my triggers? What are my biases?” he said.

“This is why we have spiritual life, to help students especially, but everybody to kind of be more self-aware of those things.”

He said spirituality also helps with self-regulation.

“For some people it's meditation or prayer or religious ritual or a breath, whatever it is, yoga, some embodied practice that somehow a student has the ability to become aware of, ‘Wow, I'm really stressed right now. Here's a resource I learned in my mindfulness that's going to help me calm myself down and then I can be a better version of myself.’ ” 

Boys said spirituality should be practiced daily, not only on days when people attend religious service.

“Every single day we should have some time for built-in mindfulness in the classroom or moments to pause and reflect on the day, just to try to calm their busy minds for a moment and give them a moment. Because it’s hard enough being a teenager.”

Help for faculty and staff

There also is a myriad of programs available for faculty and staff. They have access to the fitness center, a well-being assistance program, wellness workshops on mental health and medical issues, healthy habits, nutrition, financial wellness, weight management, and numerous other resources.

Culver has an Employee Assistance Program through New Avenues to help workers with emotional, physical, social and financial well-being and work-life balance. A faculty or staff member who is feeling extra stress because of financial problems, marriage problems, a troubled child or death of someone close can get six free visits with a counselor, which could include a psychologist, therapist or social worker. After that, the counseling sessions are covered by insurance.

Someone going to the on-site health clinic saying they are feeling overwhelmed or having some other issues, such as substance abuse or eldercare concerns, will be connected immediately in a room by themselves with someone via iPad with New Avenues, where they will be asked a series of questions to assess exactly what type of therapist they need so an initial appointment can be scheduled, said Shellie Hicks, Culver’s chief human resources officer. That first meeting will be scheduled in three to five days, which is unusual these days.

“One of the big challenges with some providers is that for therapists, and psychiatrists in particular, people are waiting months to get in. And the other feedback is that we're kind of a small community and sometimes people have trouble finding a therapist that they feel comfortable going to.  So they are now offering online telehealth,” Hicks said.

Therapists have hours 7 a.m. to 11 p.m.

Employees also have access to nutrition classes, fitness programs, group exercise classes, health coaching, financial counseling and other possibilities through the Marathon Health website.

“We are trying to emphasize that there are courses on managing stress, depression, anxiety within the Marathon site,” Hicks said.

Way of life at Culver

A lot of schools say they believe in holistic health. What separates Culver from other schools, though, is that a mind, spirit, and body approach has been a way of life for generations of students, said Dana Neer, Culver’s wellness director.

“Henry Harrison Culver was a very thoughtful man, and he was a Christian man. He had this whole belief that boys, at that time, should have comprehensive wellness,” Neer said. “But it wasn't limited to physical wellness. He wanted the boys to be moral and ethical and have a belief system. He saw the value of mental and academic wellness. That was a big part of our school and still is.”

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