Dr. Witte’s primary research interest is in a construct first introduced by Joiner (2005), which is known as the acquired capability for suicide. According to the interpersonal-psychological theory, not all people who desire suicide exhibit the physical pain tolerance and fearlessness about death necessary to be capable of inflicting self-injury. This capability must be acquired over time through repeated experiences that involve pain and/or death (i.e. painful and provocative experiences). Through repeated exposure to such events (e.g., combat, physical aggression, non-suicidal self-injury), an individual habituates to fear of death and physical pain, thus rendering him/her capable of lethal (or near-lethal) self-injury. The acquired capability construct is the most novel aspect of the interpersonal-psychological theory and is in great need of empirical research. Dr. Witte utilizes a multi-method approach in order to solidify the parameters of this construct, as it involves a cognitive component (i.e. fearlessness), sensation/perception (i.e. pain tolerance), and neurological pathways that serve as biological substrates. Her research program is designed to investigate life experiences and trait-level variables that facilitate the acquisition of the capability for suicide. Dr. Witte has co-authored a book on clinical applications of the interpersonal-psychological theory of suicide.
Dr. Witte is also actively pursuing a line of research investigating negative mental health outcomes, including suicidal behavior, in veterinary professionals. This reseach involves interdisciplinary collaboration with public health experts, veterinarians, and physicians. A summary of this line of work can be found here.