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Interpersonal Psychotherapy

Reviewed by Psychology Today Staff

Interpersonal psychotherapy (IPT) is a time-limited, focused, evidence-based approach to treat mood disorders. The main goal of IPT is to improve the quality of a client’s interpersonal relationships and social functioning to help reduce their distress. IPT provides strategies to resolve problems within four key areas.

First, it addresses interpersonal deficits, including social isolation or involvement in unfulfilling relationships. Second, it can help patients manage unresolved grief—if the onset of distress is linked to the death of a loved one, either recent or past. Third, IPT can help with difficult life transitions like retirement, divorce, or moving to another city. Fourth, IPT is recommended for dealing with interpersonal disputes that emerge from conflicting expectations between partners, family members, close friends, or coworkers.

When It's Used

IPT was originally developed to treat major depressive disorder. It’s also used effectively to treat eating disorders, perinatal depression, drug and alcohol addiction, dysthymia, and other mood disorders—including bipolar disorder. IPT differs from other traditional psychodynamic approaches in that it examines current rather than past relationships, and recognizes—but does not focus on—internal conflicts.

The practice differs from cognitive and behavioral therapy approaches because it addresses maladaptive thoughts and behaviors only as they apply to interpersonal relationships. IPT aims to change relationship patterns rather than the associated depressive symptoms, as well as target relationship difficulties that exacerbate these symptoms. IPT is less directive than cognitive-behavioral approaches—focusing on the patient’s specified target areas without dwelling on his or her personality traits.

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What to Expect

IPT treatment typically consists of individual therapy sessions or group work completed within 12 to 16 weeks. Treatment is structured—including homework, continuous assessment, and interviews by the therapist. The first phase of IPT often involves one to three sessions during which the therapist will assess depressive symptoms and examine social history and close relationships, including any changes in relationship patterns and expectations. Then, the therapist works with the patient to implement treatment strategies specific to any identified problem areas. As treatment progresses, a targeted problem area might change.

Correspondingly, so might the therapist’s recommended strategies. Group sessions—like individual ones—are time-limited, semi-structured, and focused on interpersonal dynamics. Groups provide more opportunities for patients to practice interpersonal skills in a safe, supportive environment. Group therapy, also often includes pre-treatment, mid-treatment, and post-treatment individual meetings to review goals, strategies, and progress.

How It Works

IPT developed more than 20 years ago as a time-structured treatment for major depression, and it has gained popularity in recent years. Practitioners believe that change in social environment is a key factor in the onset of depression as well as continued depression. Originally developed for adults, IPT has been modified for practice with adolescents and elderly patients. IPT first appeared as part of a study investigating the efficacy of antidepressants, and was found comparable in efficacy to medication.

What to Look for in an IPT Therapist

IPT is a relatively young psychotherapy that was developed as a research intervention, and until recently, most practitioners of IPT were researchers. Its research success has led to IPT’s inclusion in clinical treatment guidelines and growing interest among clinicians, but the standards for clinical training for non-researchers are still being defined. The International Society for Interpersonal Psychotherapy (ISIPT), an international umbrella organization, deliberates training issues and allows countries to develop their own credentialing processes for IPT.

A therapist should help the patient identify any interpersonal issues he or she wants to address, and rank them in order of importance. The therapist should also offer support regarding clarification of issues, communication analysis, and supportive listening.

Klerman, G. L., & Weissman, M. M. (1994). Interpersonal psychotherapy of depression: A brief, focused, specific strategy. Jason Aronson, Incorporated.
Wilfley, Denise E., & Shore, Allison L. (2015). Interpersonal Psychotherapy. In International Encyclopedia of the Social & Behavioral Sciences (pp. 631-636).
Wurm, C, Robertson, M, & Rushton, P. (2008). Interpersonal psychotherapy: An overview. Psychotherapy in Australia, 14(3), 46-54.
National Institutes of Health