Public Safety

ISU student suicide trial: Student therapist says she tried to ensure 21-year-old wouldn't harm himself

Expert says Dane Schussler misdiagnosed, counseling center didn't meet standard of care

Dane Schussler took his life while attending school at Iowa State University.
Dane Schussler took his life while attending school at Iowa State University.

CEDAR RAPIDS — A former psychology graduate student who treated 21-year-old Dane Schussler before he died by suicide about a month into therapy said Thursday she tried to ensure he had no intent to harm himself when he left an Oct. 22, 2015, session with her, a few weeks before he was found dead.

Katie Pesch, now a licensed psychologist in North Carolina, said Schussler, a student at Iowa State University in Ames, came that day to the Student Counseling Center for his third session, and said he was “curious” about suicide and had done some research into it and possible methods.

She testified she was “shocked or surprised” he was thinking about this. Pesch asked him questions about what he learned. But then Schussler denied researching ways to kill himself and acted “nonchalant” about it, she testified.

Schussler died by suicide a few weeks later 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.

His parents, Kathryn and Jeffrey Schussler of Marion, are suing the state of Iowa for negligence, asserting ISU didn’t provide adequate mental health services to its students. The trial started Monday is expected to go into next week in Linn County District Court.

Schussler first came to the center Sept. 25, 2015. He had trouble focusing, felt down, had anxiety, lack of emotion and appetite, slow speech and poor eye contact.

According to earlier testimony, he was having trouble dealing with a traumatic situation a month before that involved friends being arrested for carrying weapons across state lines into Boston, Mass., when they attended a Pokemon championship tournament. He wasn’t arrested but was interrogated.

Pesch set up six sessions of treatment.

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On Oct. 22, 2015, Pesch said Schussler told her the suicidal thoughts started Oct. 16 when he was having trouble doing his homework. He had a “fear of failure” in his school work, she said.

Pesch said she asked him questions until she was “satisfied” he wasn’t going to harm himself. She then asked him to sign a contract promising not harm himself, gave him a 24-hour crisis line to call and discussed coping strategies.

On Oct. 29 that year, Schussler denied having suicidal thoughts and acted “dismissive” about it — “like it was no big deal.” She said she again questioned him until she felt he wasn’t going to harm himself.

His anxiety went down and he wasn’t in as much distress, according to an assessment tool used by the center, Pesch said. Schussler said he made progress with his fear of asking for help.

At the next session Nov. 5, Schussler again denied having thoughts of suicide, she said.

Schussler was diagnosed with persistent depressive disorder, with accompanying anxiety and parent-child relationship issues.

Pesch said she went over his case with her supervisor, then an unlicensed psychologist.

But the supervisor was in turn supervised by a licensed psychologist, according to earlier testimony.

But if Schussler was dismissive, couldn’t that have meant he didn’t want to talk about it, asked Martin Diaz, the family’s attorney. “Isn’t that a red flag?”

Pesch said she didn’t interpret it that way.

If Schussler denied his suicidal thoughts, couldn’t that be a red flag? Diaz asked.

Pesch agreed.

“Do you blame him for dying by suicide?” Diaz asked.

“I think it’s more complicated than that,” Pesch replied.

Thomas Joiner, a professor of psychology at Florida State University who specializes in understanding and preventing suicide, said he is more critical of Pesch’s supervisors than of her — she was the trainee.

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Joiner said the counseling center didn’t meet the proper standard of care. The therapists didn’t accurately categorize Schussler’s risk level, didn’t understand diagnostically where he was early enough and should have intensified his treatment.

Schussler had five out of nine symptoms for major depressive disorder, Joiner said.

It is “worrisome” when an individual thinks about suicide, Joiner said. The incident with his friends brought out his vulnerability and depression, he testified. So it was urgent to start treatment.

Major depressive disorder is “dangerous on its face” without any other condition, Joiner said. Pesch shouldn’t have trusted Schussler’s “dismissiveness.”

“It’s difficult for someone to bring up suicide,” Joiner said. “They don’t want to talk about it.”

When Schussler came back for the next session and said he wasn’t thinking about it, Jointer said, that doesn’t change things. It still would have gotten his attention about Schussler’s risk level, he said.

Mitigating the risk is important because it can prevent suicide, Joiner said. Schussler’s therapist should have tried to reduce his “misery and agony” — something as simple as a text sent to the patient to let him know the therapist is there for him.

If there had been the proper diagnosis and treatment, Joiner testified, Schussler’s death could have been prevented.

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

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