CEDAR RAPIDS — A Linn County jury Wednesday found the state of Iowa caused the death of Iowa State University student Dane Schussler, who went to the university’s counseling center for mental health issues and died by suicide Nov. 9, 2015.
The jury also found Schussler shared in the fault with the state, assessing each with 50 percent of the responsibility.
Schussler’s parents will be awarded $315,000, reduced by half from the $630,000 award set by the jury, because their son shared in the fault, according to the verdict.
Martin Diaz, the Schusslers’ lawyer, said the family was happy the jury found the state was negligent in providing adequate mental health services to students at the university.
Diaz said money was never the issue for the Schusslers. They wanted to bring awareness to the issues surrounding mental health, and show that the diseases are treatable and there should be accountability when services are not meeting the needs.
“We’re pleased with the jury’s work and appreciate their time because we know this wasn’t an easy decision,” Diaz said. “I’m sure many came in with preconceived notions about mental health and they gave us a chance to educate and provide information.”
Diaz said he hopes this will change people’s attitudes about mental health and bring changes to the ISU counseling center, which hasn’t done enough, in his view.
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Michael Norton, attorney for ISU, said he wanted to extend condolences to the family of Dane Schussler.
“Dane was part of the Iowa State community, and we all share in the grief of his family’s loss,” Norton said in a statement. “We thank the jury for its work, but respectfully disagree with its decision to hold Iowa State partially responsible. At this time, we are exploring options for an appeal.
“Iowa State cares deeply about the health, safety, and well-being of its students, and we are committed to providing access to services and support to meet their needs,” Norton added.
Schussler died after seeking help
Schussler, after five counseling sessions at the counseling center, killed himself on Nov. 9, 2015. His body was found on railroad tracks in Ames. The State Medical Examiner’s Office determined he died from blunt force injuries, and the death was ruled a suicide.
According to trial testimony, Schussler had major depressive disorder but a graduate assistant, who wasn’t a licensed psychologist, diagnosed him with a mild depressive disorder.
Diaz, in his closing Tuesday, said Schussler came to the counseling center Sept. 29, 2015, and was having high depression and anxiety, had trouble focusing, felt down, was losing touch with reality and was experiencing a lack of emotion — all “classic” symptoms of major depressive disorder.
The expert witnesses, during trial, said the graduate assistant counselor, Katie Pesch, missed the red flags. She set up six therapy sessions for Schussler.
On the third session, Oct. 22, 2015, Schussler said he’d had suicidal thoughts and had been researching ways to end his life, Diaz said. But Pesch said he was just curious.
Schussler didn’t mention suicide in the next two sessions. But the experts said he was holding back, which should have been seen as another red flag.
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Diaz, in his closing, said Pesch’s unlicensed supervisor and the licensed psychologist at the center never watched the videotaped sessions with him, never treated him directly and didn’t ask to talk to his parents. They were convinced it was just “curiosity,” he said.
During trial, Pesch, now a licensed psychologist in North Carolina, testified she tried to ensure the student had no intent to harm himself when he left the center that day.
Pesch said by the end of the session she was “satisfied” he wasn’t going to harm himself. She also asked him to sign a contract promising not to harm himself, gave him a 24-hour crisis line to call and discussed coping strategies.
Experts testified that major depressive disorder is treatable and preventable, and if Schussler had been properly diagnosed, “we would never have gotten to the Nov. 9 death,” Diaz told jurors Tuesday.
Counseling director warned of potential crisis
During trial, Terry Mason, former director of the counseling center, testified about how budget reductions caused significant staffing shortages. He warned officials in 2011 and 2012 about problems and said he was fired because he wrote a report outlining the dangers, including his fear that students will die by suicide without proper treatment available.
Iowa Solicitor General Jeffrey Thompson, in his closing Tuesday, argued a team approach was used in Schussler’s care over a five-week period. It met the required standard of care and didn’t cause the student’s suicide, he said.
The “core of the issue” is to decide whether Pesch did her job. She is the only one who met and counseled Schussler. Thompson said Pesch was a “well-qualified therapist” with a bachelor’s and master’s degree in psychology.
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