Guest Columnist

Irrational privacy policies don't protect college students, families

The concept of 'special relationship' haunts me

Kathy Schussler (right) looks at her husband Jeff as they talk about events leading to their son Dane's suicide at their attorney Marty Diaz's house in Swisher, Iowa, on Thursday, Aug. 15, 2019. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)
Kathy Schussler (right) looks at her husband Jeff as they talk about events leading to their son Dane's suicide at their attorney Marty Diaz's house in Swisher, Iowa, on Thursday, Aug. 15, 2019. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)

My son, Dane, died by suicide at Iowa State University after receiving therapy in the student counseling center.

Dane did not fit society’s preconceived notions of suicide. He was not a celebrity, an athlete or any other idea of what a victim of suicide is supposed to be. He was, however, highly recruited by ISU, which anticipated he would be one of their highest achievers. After his death, there were no vigils or memorials for a young man who spent more than two years on the campus and was active on campus and a leader in two clubs.

Upon his death, there was silence. There was no round-table assessment of the care he received. In his death announcement in the campus paper, there was no reference to his parents or family. Instead, ISU emphasized that any students needing help with their grief should seek services in the student counseling center that failed him.

University policy is to not call the parents if a student expresses suicidal ideation. ... They only call us to pick up the bodies of our dead children and then they cover up the details of their deaths.

- Kathy Schussler

Dane had no history of mental illness. Because he had never been in counseling before, he had no understanding of what “good” counseling was. He walked into the counseling center on his own based on my advice for what I thought was “normal college stress.” After he died, I asked for a copy of his counseling records. I was told I could not receive them due to the privacy laws in place. Yet, almost a year later, they finally gave them to me.

On his first intake visit, he was actually in full blown depression, but he had no suicide ideation. His therapist was an unlicensed, unsupervised graduate assistant who just happened to be the first one to see him at the counter. She diagnosed him as having mild depression.

Three weeks later, he was planning and researching suicide and she dismissed his thoughts and plans as being curious, even though he stated the thoughts were new for him. When we later reviewed his counseling center records, the word “curious” was nowhere to be found.

Our family sued ISU for medical malpractice. At the absolute worst moment of my life, therapists who were supposed to understand grief were not forthcoming with me. I asked repeatedly to speak with the counselor or supervisor who worked with Dane, but I was denied that request.

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Two months before our trial, ISU requested a judge to dismiss our case, claiming there was no “special relationship” between the graduate assistant counselor and my son. The judge rejected this argument and allowed the case to go to trial. The trial was eight days of torture for my family. The jury awarded us a medical negligence verdict and determined the State of Iowa was at fault and a cause of his death. Since Dane’s death there have been no significant structural changes at ISU.

The concept of “special relationship” haunts me. The graduate assistant was a young woman working on her doctorate. She had five 50-minute sessions with Dane. She was a researcher and she practiced on him. She knew nothing about our family, except she did know that we referred him.

She did not know that he loved binge watching “House of Cards” and playing “Settlers of Catan” or that some of his favorite foods were guacamole, egg rolls and dark chocolate. She did not note that his suicidal thoughts began the day after his 21st birthday. He listed his parents and his brother, who was on campus at the time, as his support system. Dane stated he did not feel comfortable talking to anyone on campus about his mental health issues.

I gave birth to my son. He was born nine weeks early. I nursed him for 6 months and we lived in a bubble. I became a stay-at-home mom after working for 11 years because I could not leave my children.

Dane would not have been at ISU were it not for us. He had no full-time job and was a dependent on our taxes and our health insurance. We filled out a FAFSA every year and gave ISU all of our financial information. We moved him in. We bought him a car and paid his car insurance so he had transportation at school. He had a credit card in our name. We paid his tuition. We supported him. We coached him. We rarely missed any school events. He was kind, principled and full of promise. We love him always. His smile lit up our lives.

Parents are frustrated by the laws in place which prohibit us from obtaining medical information, even with a medical power of attorney in place. These are our children who are covered on our family insurance policies.

Refusal to provide info to parents is especially frustrating in cases of mental health. We pay for their care because we love them, yet we have no rights to information and are prevented from helping them. The scientific literature confirms that young human brains are not fully developed until at least age 25. As humans, we are not meant to live in isolation, but as part of a family unit.

I recently told our primary care physician that I had my appendix out when I was in college 35 years ago. I could barely get myself to the hospital and I was in no shape to call my parents. In today’s irrational privacy age, with the laws that are currently in place, I would wake up alone after that surgery feeling depressed and unloved by my parents. My parents wouldn’t be there, because they wouldn’t be notified.

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It’s no wonder college suicide rates have soared to three times the rate of the 1950s. The universities have marketed the idea that they are “taking care of our children” but when something goes wrong, they are not responsible because there is no “special relationship.” They are failing in that role.

University policy is to not call the parents if a student expresses suicidal ideation. They still do not call the parents when a student unsuccessfully attempts suicide. They only call us to pick up the bodies of our dead children and then they cover up the details of their deaths.

• Kathy Schussler of Marion is the mother of an Iowa State University student who died by suicide in 2015. This month, a Linn County jury found the state partially responsible for his death.

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