Public Safety

Attorney: Marion parents seeking purpose in son's suicide

But state argues it met standard of care for Dane Schussler

CEDAR RAPIDS — Kathryn and Jeffrey Schussler wanted to find purpose amid calamity — the suicide of their 21-year-old son, Dane. They didn’t want to “hide and shrink” away from the horrific act but instead bring awareness of the disease that led to it, their attorney told jurors Tuesday in his closing argument.

Iowa City lawyer Martin Diaz said the Marion couple chose strength and courage over the shame and anger usually associated with suicide. They filed a lawsuit against the state for negligence in providing adequate mental health care to Iowa State University students like Dane.

“They wanted to find purpose in their son’s life,” Diaz said.

Schussler, after five counseling sessions at an ISU center, died by suicide 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.

The trial started last Monday in Linn County District Court. Following closing arguments, jurors started deliberating about 12:35 p.m. Tuesday. A verdict wasn’t reached and jurors will resume deliberations Wednesday.

Diaz said Kathryn Schussler had many questions about her son’s death. She went to school officials to ask for more information. She was told confidentiality laws prevented them from releasing her son’s mental health records. She later asked again, and this time was told she could have records but would have to come to Ames to pick them up.

Diaz said Schussler had a difficult time going back to where her son died. But once she looked at the records, she found her purpose, She wanted honesty and accountability for what happened.

Dane Schussler came to the counseling center Sept. 29, 2015, and was assessed with high depression and anxiety. He had trouble focusing, felt down, was losing touch with reality and was experiencing a lack of emotion — all symptoms of major depressive disorder, Diaz said.

But the center missed the red flags. Counselor Katie Pesch — a graduate assistant — said he had mild depressive disorder and was eligible for six sessions to resolve this.

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. It was another red flag, Diaz said — but Pesch said he was just curious.

Dane Schussler didn’t mention suicide in the next two sessions. But the experts said he was holding back, which was another red flag.

Diaz 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.

The center had a staffing shortage that university officials were warned of in 2011 and again in 2012. Former director Terry Mason 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.

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.

Diaz said the state will say Schussler was at fault for taking his life. There’s a perception that it’s a choice, but that’s not what the experts testified. This is a misunderstanding about suicide, Diaz said — it’s actually an illness, just like any other kind.

Dane Schussler asked for help, went to the therapy sessions and said he had suicidal thoughts.

“The problem was they had nothing to offer him,” Diaz said.

Iowa Solicitor General Jeffrey Thompson, in his closing argument to jurors, said this was an “unimaginable and heartbreaking loss.” But it’s the jurors’ jobs, he said, to decide who bears responsibility.

There was a team approach to Schussler’s care over a five-week period. It met the required standard of care and didn’t cause the student’s suicide, Thompson said.

The “core of the issue” is to decide whether Pesch did her job. She is the only one who met and counseled Schussler.

She was a “well qualified therapist” with a bachelor’s and master’s degree in psychology. Thompson argued.

One of the expert witnesses mentioned that caring contact from the therapist to the patient was important — which, Thompson said, Pesch showed. Pesch said she changed her approach to get more information out of Schussler.

He started telling her more — things he hadn’t told others, Thompson said. He tried things that were painful to him and had success when he tried social interaction. That was because of Pesch’s treatment, he said.

On Nov. 5, 2015, an assessment tool showed his depression and anxiety went down and he was making progress, Thompson pointed out.

A social worker, testifying for the state, reviewed the clinical notes and said the therapy was appropriate, Thompson said.

Both of the Schussler couple’s experts couldn’t agree on what percentage of people diagnosed with major depressive disorder can be successfully treated.

The experts also said there is lack of information concerning behavior of suicide and that’s why it can’t always be prevented, Thompson said.

The burden of proof is on the Schusslers, Thompson argued, and they failed to prove the state is at fault.

“Just because something terrible happened, it doesn’t mean there is fault,” Thompson said.

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