Public Safety

Trial starts in suicide of Iowa State University student

Marion parents claim state was negligent in providing mental health services

Dane Schussler
Dane Schussler

CEDAR RAPIDS — Dane Schussler, 21, died by suicide Nov. 9, 2015, but the story of what may have led to his death started in 2011 when Iowa State University’s enrollment increased but staffing for its mental health services did not, his parents’ Iowa City lawyer told jurors Tuesday.

Martin Diaz — the lawyer for Kathryn and Jeffrey Schussler of Marion, who are suing the state of Iowa for negligence — asserted in his opening statement to jurors Tuesday the university didn’t provide adequate mental health services to its students.

Diaz said Terry Mason, the then-director of the counseling center, warned the university in 2011 that, based on its number of students, the center was short five psychologists.

The university choose to use graduate assistants to assess students who needed mental health services, Diaz said.

The staffing issue continued to grow and by 2015, the year Dane Schussler needed help, the shortage was nine psychologists.

Mason tried to get the university’s attention by writing a report asking for a 3 percent funding increase, saying he feared students might die because of lack of services. University officials instead gave the center 3 percent less funding, Diaz said.

Mason was fired that year, but the interim director submitted a budget request for nine psychologists.

Going to counseling

On Sept. 29, 2015, Schussler, a 4.0 Linn-Mar High School graduate and industrial engineering student at ISU, came to the center after dealing with a traumatic situation a month before, involving his friends being arrested for carrying weapons in Boston, Mass., when they all attended a Pokemon championship tournament.

Schussler wasn’t involved with the guns or arrested, but he was interrogated.

Diaz said his parents saw a change in him. Their son was talking about dropping out of school, and his mother suggested he go to the counseling center.

Schussler did and filled out the questionnaire, saying he had trouble focusing, felt down, had anxiety and flat affect — lack of emotion, lack of appetite, slow speech, loss of contact with reality — symptoms of “major depressive disorder,” Diaz said.

But a graduate assistant, Katie Pesch, diagnosed Schussler with having mild depressive disorder, Diaz said, making him eligible for six counseling sessions.

On the third session, Oct. 16, Schussler said he’d had suicidal thoughts and had been researching ways to end his life. Pesch, in her notes, said Schussler told her he was just curious, and she had him sign a contract of safety — promising to not kill himself — at the end of session and sent him home.

He didn’t mention suicide in the next two sessions.

Pesch was supervised by one unlicensed psychologist and one licensed, but those two never saw or treated Schussler, Diaz said. They trusted Pesch's assessment and believed she followed through by asking Schussler to give details about his thoughts.

Pesch, in a deposition taken in this case, said she didn’t ask for details, Diaz said.

Diaz said experts will testify about how Schussler’s mental illness was misdiagnosed and that the best way to prevent suicide is with a diagnosis. They will testify suicide can be prevented about 65 percent of the time if the underlying disease is properly treated, Diaz said.

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

Complex case

Iowa Assistant Attorney General Sharon Wegner in her opening statement said this case is complex because suicide is complex.

“Everybody wishes Dane would have made a different choice,” Wegner said.

Schussler was a struggling student and sought counseling, Wegner said. He met with Pesch and had five additional sessions. In that third session, when Schussler said he was thinking about suicide, Pesch went over the thoughts with him. She talked with him and thought he would be safe and not harm himself.

Pesch will testify about how she followed up with Schussler and asked about his intent and gave him a 24-hour suicide line number. She put in place “standard therapeutic protocol.” He came back the next two weeks and said he wasn’t thinking about suicide.

But Schussler didn’t tell Pesch he was struggling academically and socially and had thoughts of dropping out. His parents knew these things, but he didn’t tell Pesch, Wegner said.

During the trial, several university officials will testify about policies and procedures, Wegner said. Pesch’s supervisors will say she did nothing wrong, Wegner said. The supervisor will say Pesch was “diligent and attentive in therapy” and correctly handled Schussler’s treatment.

Wegner said Schussler’s younger brother also will testify about how his brother talked about suicidal thoughts several weeks before his death.

Wegner told the jurors not to pay attention to the “red herrings” — lack of funding and resources — suggested by Diaz. The evidence will show it didn’t affect Schussler.

The civil trial is expected to go eight days in Linn County District Court.

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