State shares responsibility for 2015 suicide of Iowa State student

Dane Schussler poses for a photo with his mother, Kathryn Schussler, and father, Jeffrey Schussler, on either side during a visit to Iowa State.

Jacob Smith

On Nov. 9, 2015, Kathryn and Jeffrey Schussler woke up to knocking on their door. 

“We were sound asleep, and we got a knock on the door at about three in the morning, and the dog was barking,” Kathryn Schussler said. “And we have some window panes on the side of our door, and I looked out and could see that there were two Linn County Sheriffs and a chaplain standing there, and I did not want to let them in. As a parent, you know when you see those people standing at your door that something bad happened.”

They were told by police that their son Dane, age 21 and a junior at Iowa State, had died by suicide.

Dane had gone through counseling with Iowa State’s counseling center for five sessions prior to his death.

Dane was described by his parents as a smart, happy and kind young adult with a strong concept of time. They said he was very easy to raise and never caused any trouble growing up.

“He lit up our life,” Kathryn Schussler said.

Starting as a student studying genetics through the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, Dane had a strong love for plants from past exposure from his father, who is a plant physiologist. Plant Physiology is the study of how different parts of plants function and is associated with various fields including agronomy, plant breeding and molecular biology.

After his first year of studies, Dane decided genetics was not for him, and so he began the process of switching his major to industrial engineering. Industrial engineering is all about logistics, time and efficiency, which Kathryn said she believed fit Dane very well.

Outside of academics, Dane was an all-state trombone player who loved playing cards. He was attracted to the Mayhem card shop on Lincoln Way and would play Pokémon with his friends.

“When he started struggling in school I thought it was just what you would call normal college stress,” Kathryn Schussler said. “I had no idea he was in full blown depression.”

Dane was starting his third year at Iowa State, and Kathryn had heard from other parents and families going through the transition that the counseling center had helped them, so she suggested he seek their assistance.

“We were led to believe this was a really good counseling center, and so that stuck in my head,” Kathryn Schussler said. “We sat down at roundtables with other family members and they talked about the transition going into college; we raised our hands and talked about our concerns about sending our children off to school and they basically said ‘send your kids to us.’”

Kathryn Schussler said she believed she was sending her kid to counseling for normal college stress, so the night when the Linn County Sherrifs reported to the Schusslers that Dane was dead came as a shock.

“They told us that Dane had died and we both pretty much lost it,” Kathryn Schussler said. “We were shocked. We had no idea. And then we woke up our daughter and they told us that our son Eric was already aware that Dane had passed.”

Eric, Dane’s brother, was a year younger than Dane and was on Iowa State’s campus at the time. The police informed Eric of Dane’s passing before the parents.

“A couple of police officers knocked on Eric’s door prior to notifying us,” Kathryn Schussler said. “They woke Eric up, who was sound asleep in his dorm room, at about two in the morning, before us, and told him that his brother had died, and they asked Eric if Eric wanted to call us and notify us and Eric said ‘No I don’t want to do that.’ And then they asked Eric for our phone numbers.”

Kathryn Schussler was told that her son was waiting to hear from her.

“We thought that was just terrible that they would notify our son first and expect him to call us,” Kathryn Schussler said.

Kathryn Schussler said she believed that the officers should have not contacted Eric before them as they would have been able to retrieve their phone number via AccessPlus.

The next couple of days were rough for the whole family.

“I couldn’t eat,” Kathryn Schussler said. “I lost weight. I couldn’t sleep. I would cry all the time.”

The Schusslers sought out legal assistance from Martin Diaz, an attorney from Iowa City who, at the time, was in the process of retiring. Martin represented the Schusslers in their lawsuit against the state of Iowa, in which they were suing for medical negligence on the claim of inadequate counseling services.

Diaz said he believes the Schusslers approached him in early 2017 after Iowa State had blocked her from contacting any employees without first going through the university attorney’s office.

“They asked me if I would be willing to help them on this case, and I knew that it [meant] it was gonna take me out of the focus of retiring and back into practicing more on a regular basis, or at least on a part-time basis, so that’s what I did,” Diaz said.

Diaz said he believes that Dane may have had an underlying susceptibility to depression, and the triggering event for Dane could have been a Pokémon tournament he attended with his friends in August of 2015 in Boston, the weekend before school started at Iowa State. 

Without Dane’s knowledge, his friends brought guns across state lines and made ambiguous comments that they may have been planning to use the guns. The FBI then raided the hotel room where Dane and his friends were staying and interrogated Dane along with his friends.

Dane was not charged with anything but both of his friends were convicted of carrying firearms across state lines. 

“That seemed to trigger whatever underlying sort of depression and anxiety that he [may] have had,” Diaz said. “That’s what brought him to the counseling center at the end of September of 2015.”

Diaz explained how Dane had communicated his feelings and thoughts to his counselor.

“We know that about three sessions in he tells them that he’s thinking of suicide, that he has researched the idea of suicide and most importantly [has] researched methods of suicide,” Diaz said. “He was showing all of the signs of a major depressive disorder.”

Diaz said he believes that Dane was showing all of the red-flags people with major depressive disorders show, however, he was not diagnosed correctly. Dane was viewed as someone with mild depression and his comments were not taken as seriously as they would have been had he been diagnosed with a major depression disorder, Diaz said.

“The goal of the Schusslers was to get the message out,” Diaz said. “University counseling centers need to take a better approach to treating students.”

Diaz said this is a problem that impacts more than just Iowa State; it is a problem across the country.

Diaz said this problem stems from increased enrollment in universities, but a stagnant level of health care professionals offered. With more students coming in and a higher need of mental health services, universities cannot keep up with demands. 

The Schusslers’ goal was to inform people about the mental health crisis, Diaz said. They want to get people to talk about mental health services at universities and suicide prevention.

On Aug. 14, the Linn County jury awarded Kathryn and Jeffrey Schussler with $630,000, but this was halved to $315,000 because their son is also 50 percent at fault, according to the verdict.

Kathryn Schussler said she is not worried about the money; she said she is more happy at the fact they obtained the medical negligence verdict they were hoping for.

“Really, for me, it was just about being able to tell my story, get the word out about mental health and the approach that these universities are taking to distressed college students,” Kathryn Schussler said. “That was the number one goal for me.”