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Their son took his own life. His parents are suing Iowa over lack of mental health care

State, however, asks court to dismiss the case

CEDAR RAPIDS — The parents of a 21-year-old Marion man who killed himself in 2015 are suing the state of Iowa, saying employees at Iowa State University were negligent in the mental health services they provided the student.

Dane Schussler’s body was found Nov. 9, 2015, on railroad tracks in Ames, police said. The State Medical Examiner’s Office determined he died from blunt force injuries and the death was ruled a suicide, police said.

Forty-one days before his death, on Sept. 29, 2015, Schussler went to the ISU counseling center complaining he had difficulty concentrating and focusing after a “traumatic incident” involving his friends being arrested by federal agents in Boston, Mass., the month before, according to the lawsuit filed in Linn County District Court.

Law enforcement had raided the hotel room that Schussler shared with his friends. He was interrogated but not charged in the incident.

Before seeking counseling, Schussler had no history of mental illness, the suit states.

Martin Diaz, a lawyer for his parents, Kathryn and Jeffrey Schussler of Marion, said in the suit that an unlicensed graduate assistant at the center assessed Schussler as struggling with depression and social anxiety that related to the Boston incident. Schussler said he had trouble focusing and sleeping, felt down and lacked an appetite. He also had anxiety, fear or worry, particularly in social settings.

Schussler was assessed with an “adjustment disorder with evidence of depression and anxiety,” the suit states. He had five follow up sessions up to Nov. 5, 2015.

During an Oct. 22 session that year, Schussler told the counselor he had thoughts of suicide and they had “led him to research information on suicide and possible methods,” according to the suit. These thoughts were new for him, which indicated a “sudden change” in his condition.

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Despite this information, the counseling center didn’t take the adequate steps to respond and continued to provide him with an “inadequately supervised counselor,” according to the lawsuit.

Diaz, in the filing, said ISU officials knew the center was inadequately funded and short-staffed by 11 staff members. This had been a long-term problem that the former director of center, Dr. Terry Mason, addressed in a letter to university officials in June 2012.

In that letter, Mason warned that if more funding and staffing wasn’t provided, a “mental health disaster” would happen — including students harming themselves or others, according to the suit.

Mason recommended including hiring “full-time non-trainee staff” to cover the number of students at ISU, the suit shows. Instead of providing more staff, ISU fired Mason on July 30, 2015. He later filed a retaliation claim against the university, which was settled in 2017.

The Schusslers contend the state is liable for negligence at the ISU counseling center for failing to provide their son with “sufficiently trained and supervised counselors,” to intervene to prevent his suicide by including family members to assist in his recovery and failing to refer him to a more appropriate source for help, according to the suit.

Two psychologists experienced in suicidal assessment, one who is experienced with university counseling centers, were retained by the Schusslers and both concluded center employees failed to recognize a “significant risk for suicide” and failed to ensure he received proper care. Both psychologists said the lack of experience and training contributed to Schussler’s death.

The state recently asked the court for a summary judgment — to dismiss the lawsuit, arguing the state can’t be held liable for Schussler’s “intentional act of self-harm” according to law, the motion states.

The Schusslers’ assertions also fail, the state’s motion shows, because under Iowa’s comparative fault statute — which in personal injury cases finds one party at fault and assigns percentage of fault for damages — no “reasonable jury could find Dane less than 51 percent at fault for his death.”

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Assistant Iowa Attorney General Christopher Deist, in the state’s motion, points out Schussler told the graduate assistant he felt better by the end of that Oct. 22 session. The assistant also reminded him of crisis services available at the center, gave him the national crisis hotline number and discussed several coping methods to deal with any future suicidal thoughts, according to the motion.

The state also argues, as a matter of law and public policy, it didn’t have duty to prevent Schussler from intentionally harming himself. And even if the state did owe that duty, the Schusslers would be barred from recovering damages because a jury couldn’t find their son was less than 51 percent at fault under Iowa law, according to the motion.

The law “generally imposes no duty upon an individual to protect another person from self-inflicted harm in the absence of a special relationship, usually custodial in nature.” Exceptions to the rule include when a duty to prevent is a result of physical custody or protective status such as if a person is confined to a hospital or jail.

Diaz, in his resistance to summary judgment, argues there was a counselor-patient relationship that “triggered a duty to act consistent with the standard of care.”

“Dane Schussler had an expectation that he would be treated within the standard of care and that when he displayed the warning signs of suicide that he would be provided with appropriate evaluation, care and treatment,” Diaz said in the motion.

A summary judgment isn’t appropriate in this case because there are disputed facts about the care or lack of care Schussler received, which was cited by two expert witnesses, Diaz argues in the motion.

The “foreseeability” of Schussler’s potential suicide is a fact question for a jury, he said. It should be up to a jury to determine whether the counseling center employees acted within the standard of care and “whether the failure to act was a cause of Dane Schussler being allowed to complete the act of suicide.”

A judge hasn’t ruled on the summary judgment motion.

l Comments: (319) 398-8318; trish.mehaffey@thegazette.com

HOW TO GET HELP

Call: 1-800-273-8255. The lifeline provides 24/7, free and confidential support for people in distress, prevention and crisis resources for you or your loved ones.

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Visit: suicidepreventionlifeline.org. The site offers resources, chat and links to local centers.

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