Marion parents who lost son to suicide wanted answers from Iowa State University
Gazette - 8/19/2019
Aug. 19--CEDAR RAPIDS -- Kathy Schussler believes her son Dane wanted to live because he was searching for a solution to his problem -- which was typical for the Iowa State University engineering student.
But he didn't find one.
Dane, 21, was feeling down and stressed. But Kathy and her husband, Jeff, had no idea he was sinking into deep depression. About the time she began to realize something was "off" in her "easy going, golden" child, it was too late.
The couple woke up to the sounds of their dog barking and someone knocking on the door at 3 a.m.Nov. 10, 2015.
"I looked out and saw the Linn County sheriff and chaplain," Kathy, tearing up, said last week. "I didn't want to open the door. I couldn't. I opened it a crack and then closed it. I didn't want to open it."
The deputy told her to get her husband. She did, and Jeff let the men in. They said Dane's body had been found on railroad tracks in Ames.
He died Nov. 9, 2015, from blunt-force injuries. The State Medical Examiner's Office ruled it was a suicide.
The Marion couple sat down to talk Thursday with The Gazette, a day after a jury found the state caused the suicide death of Dane, but also that Dane shared fault. The jury awarded $630,000 but because jurors found Dane shared fault, the award was halved to $315,000.
The couple had sued the state for negligence, asserting their son received inadequate mental health care when he turned to ISU for help.
Filing that lawsuit -- bringing into the spotlight an issue many are uncomfortable even mentioning -- was a trying decision for the Schusslers. But in the end, they decided they wanted to public to know what was going on.
Dane's life, and death, would have a purpose.
Signs of a turn
Dane started talking about dropping out of ISU in September 2015, which concerned his mother. This was a young man who had done well since he overcame a speech delay as a child. He loved numbers and "spoke through numbers" as a way to get past his speech issues.
"It was all about time, efficiency and production for Dane," Jeff said.
Dane had a 4.1 grade-point average when he graduated from Linn-Mar High School and a scholarship to ISU. He started majoring in genetics but switched to industrial engineering.
And he had done well in college -- always well-prepared and organized. But in August 2015, right before the fall semester, he experienced a disturbing incident with his friends.
They all had qualified to be in a Pokemon card championship tournament in Boston, Mass.
Kathy said his friends, who she didn't know, drove to Boston. But the couple wanted their son to fly so he could get back in time for school to start the next day.
His friends took guns, which they had legally purchased and licensed in Iowa, to Boston to show friends. Federal agents learned of it and raided their hotel room.
They interrogated Dane, who was also staying in the room but knew nothing of the guns. He was not charged.
But his friends were, and eventually convicted of carrying firearms across state lines.
Jeff said they knew Dane was "rattled" but didn't know how much the episode affected him. Kathy said her son didn't want to talk about it.
In hindsight, that incident likely triggered an underlying depression, according to psychologists who testified at trial. It continued to affect him, but he didn't understand what was happening, his parents said.
"It changed his outlook on the world," Jeff said.
"He was grieving for his friends," Kathy said.
He had been playing Pokemon for seven or eight years and this was supposed to be one of the best times in his life.
But then something fun turned traumatic.
Kathy said she could tell Dane was feeling stressed as he started talking about dropping out of school, which didn't make sense. Dane had no mental health issues before this, she said.
Dane looks for help
She encouraged him to go to the ISU counseling center. He signed up Sept. 29, 2015, to see a therapist. He also talked to his academic adviser the next day about what had happened in Boston and his thoughts about dropping out of school.
Kathy told him to drop the toughest classes. Take some pressure off.
Dane was going to have to work in a small class group, and that was bothering him. He was having social anxiety and didn't have confidence working in the group. He felt he was dragging down others.
Dane's first session at the counseling center was Oct. 8, 2015. He was assigned to a graduate assistant, Katie Pesch, who wasn't a licensed psychologist.
According to trial testimony, Pesch misdiagnosed Dane as having mild depressive disorder. Two experts said it was major -- not mild.
The expert witnesses said Pesch should have prodded him more for details of the suicidal thoughts he revealed he was having, and on the research he mentioned he had done on methods of suicide. She should have taken more aggressive steps in treatment, which could have included medication and hospitalization, they testified.
The Schusslers didn't know about Dane's suicidal thoughts or anything he'd discussed with Pesch. But they were getting more worried.
A final visit home
Kathy drove to Ames on Oct. 28, 2015, to see him. Dane told her he hadn't gotten his statistics homework back and he thought they must be reviewing it because they think he fabricated it some way. But a few days later, he got his homework back -- and there were no issues.
Dane then talked about the Boston trip, and his mother started to realize it had affected him more than she thought. She noticed her son wasn't feeling good about himself.
Jeff went to see Dane on Nov. 3, 2015, but knew he had to study for a test the next day and expected it to be a short visit. But Dane wasn't rushing to study. He didn't want his dad to leave.
"This was not his normal self," Jeff said. "He had a sadness in him."
Dane came home the weekend before he died, on Nov. 7, 2015, just to stay overnight. His parents were thrilled to see him. They had what they described as a normal night, and Dane even stayed the next day for a while. His dad talked to him about managing stress, telling how he had seen a therapist years ago in a stressful time.
"I give him a big hug and say goodbye before going to work," Jeff said.
Kathy said she almost asked him that day if he was suicidal but then quickly thought, "No. Not Dane. He's just feeling down and sad."
"I think if I would have asked, he would have told me," she said as tears welled up again.
A battle begins
After finding out that Dane had died, Kathy and Jeff drove to Ames to meet with police.
Kathy said she wanted to talk to Pesch, too. But the interim director of the center at the time, Joyce Davidson, said Pesch was "too distraught."
Davidson wasn't initially planning to meet with the Schusslers and police, but the parents asked to talk with someone from the center.
ISU Police Chief Jerry Stewart, now retired, was "fabulous and supportive of us," Kathy said. He shared with them Dane's suicide note and journal, which showed his irrational and troubled thoughts.
Davidson told her there was no signs of this in the counseling sessions, Kathy said.
"We started thinking that Dane hadn't told them anything," Kathy said. "We were led to believe they did everything right. I thought Dane must have been too proud to open up."
Kathy thought he didn't ask for help.
Although she couldn't talk to Pesch, Kathy wanted to see Dane's mental health records. Her husband wasn't so sure. "It's not going to bring him back," he thought.
But Kathy asked.
"I just wanted to make sure they did everything possible and I wanted to understand what happened," she said.
She first asked for the records Dec. 19, 2015. She got a message from an official saying she couldn't have them because of confidentiality laws.
She also learned the university didn't have to notify parents of trouble, even in a suicidal situation, unless officials believe the student is in imminent danger. And the counseling center didn't require an emergency contact from its clients like Dane, she said.
Kathy said she was overwhelmed at the time, needing to get through the holidays and take care of the couple's other two other children -- Eric, who also was an ISU student, and Maria, who was in high school.
It was not until March or April of 2016 that Kathy began to pursue it again. Now she was told she could get the records after all -- but would have to pick them up in person because they were confidential.
Kathy said it was too painful to go back to Ames. After Dane's death she could hardly get out of bed.
"I couldn't focus," she said. "I crawled into a hole."
After six months, she knew she had to get help or she wouldn't make it. She quit her job and decided to stay home with her family and heal.
In the fall of 2016, she finally got the records.
They disclosed that Dane was in "full blown depression," which Kathy had not known. Dane had told Pesch about being interrogated by federal agents and about his friends carrying guns in Boston.
"I was so angry," Kathy said. "Steam was coming out of my ears."
Then she saw in the records that a small box labeled "suicide ideation" was marked -- indicating Dane had told his therapist he had suicidal thoughts.
ISU officials had not been upfront with her. Kathy started sending emails to Davidson, asking questions.
But Davidson never responded again. The ISU attorney told Kathy to correspond with him.
"They didn't treat me like a grieving parent ... They treated me as a litigant," she said.
This is when Kathy started exploring hiring an attorney to sue the state. She wanted to prevent this from happening to another family.
Jeff wasn't on board at first. He already lost his son. After a lot of talking, he decided a positive outcome -- to prevent this from happening again and to start an honest discussion about suicide -- could provide a purpose for Dane's death.
Their attorney, Martin Diaz, warned them how difficult it would be and how the state would say it was all Dane's fault. He also told them they might not win the case.
The legal process wasn't easy for the couple, sitting through many of the depositions. Kathy decided to testify. Diaz worried how it would affect her.
It was a "terrible experience for me," Kathy said. "I remembered all the things I didn't know. How could I be so stupid? In retrospect, the signs were all there. I just didn't know. I felt shame."
A meaningful life
The Schusslers said the suit was never about money. It is about bringing awareness to the public of the problem.
Diaz said they hope to do something positive with the jury award to help support work in mental illness.
Kathy said she wants parents to ask their children what they didn't know to ask -- "Are you having thoughts about harming yourself?" just like the talks about sex, drugs and alcohol.
It shouldn't be a shameful thought.
They also hope people change their perceptions about who dies from suicide, Kathy said. It can happen to anyone.
"We are proud of our son," Jeff said. "He is not defined by this. Dane didn't know how to cope. He had a mental illness, but he did ask for help."
Kathy said they wanted accountability for Dane's death. They got that with the verdict. She hopes the state will respect it and not appeal.
Now, she wants peace.
The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline provides round-the-clock free and confidential support for people in distress, prevention and resources for you and your loved ones.
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