Interpersonal psychotherapy (IPT) is a brief, attachment-focused psychotherapy that centers on resolving interpersonal problems and symptomatic recovery.
It is an empirically supported treatment that follows a highly structured and time-limited approach and is intended to be completed within 12–16 weeks.
What is Interpersonal Psychotherapy (IPT)?
As its name suggests, IPT focuses on your interpersonal relationships and social interactions—including how much support you have from others and the impact these relationships have on your mental health.1
IPT, recognises that a person’s relationships and environment can have a huge impact on mental health.2
Types of Interpersonal Therapy
There are a couple of different adaptations of interpersonal therapy that you may encounter, including dynamic and metacognitive.
Dynamic Interpersonal Therapy
Dynamic interpersonal therapy (DIT) is also sometimes referred to as psychodynamic interpersonal therapy or mentalization-based therapy. DIT is designed to help you better understand your own thoughts and feelings, as well as the thoughts and feelings of others. It generally consists of 16 sessions over the course of five months.3
Metacognitive Interpersonal Therapy
Metacognitive interpersonal therapy (MIT) is an integrative approach to address personality disorders with prominent emotional inhibition (holding back your emotions) or avoidance. One 12-week study found that engaging in MIT helped reduce depression symptoms and improve the ability to identify emotions.4
Interpersonal therapy is also sometimes used in a modified form of couple’s therapy, such as when marital troubles are contributing to depression.
IPT begins with the therapist conducting an interpersonal inventory. This inventory is a detailed review of your significant relationships, both current and past. These relationships are then grouped according to four main problem areas.
Depression can occur as a result of the loss of a loved one. While it is normal to go through the stages of grief in this type of situation, a major loss can also result in unresolved grief. This is grief that is delayed (remains for a long time after the loss), distorted, or grief in which you may not feel emotions, but instead experience other symptoms related to depression such as insomnia and fatigue.5
Role disputes occur when you and the significant people in your life have different expectations about your relationship. An example of this is if you feel that your spouse should display more affection or ask more questions about your day. The disconnect between expectations and real-life behavior can cause feelings of depression.
Depression may occur during life transitions, when your role changes and you don’t know how to cope with that change. Getting married, getting divorced, becoming a parent, and retiring are all examples of role transitions.
If you find it difficult to form and maintain good quality relationships, IPT can help identify your interpersonal deficits. This can include any feelings of inadequacy you may have, whether you find it difficult to express your emotions, and other feelings or beliefs that are preventing you from communicating effectively.
Your therapist can help you determine which area is the most responsible for your current problems. Therapy is then directed at helping you deal with this specific interpersonal issue.
What Interpersonal Therapy Can Help With
IPT was originally created to be a short-term treatment for depression. However, it has also been shown to be an effective treatment for a number of other conditions including:
- Bipolar disorder
- Borderline personality disorder (BPD)
- Eating disorders
- Perinatal and postpartum depression
- Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
- Social anxiety disorders
- Substance and alcohol use disorders
Benefits of Interpersonal Therapy
Interpersonal therapy can have a number of important benefits, including:
IPT can help patients understand how their relationships affect their life. The goal is two-fold: to help patients function better socially and to reduce their feelings of depression.
This form of psychotherapy is based on the notion that depression occurs in the context of relationships. In other words, your relationships can potentially increase or decrease your depression, and feeling depressed can impact your relationships. As such, the goal of IPT is to relieve your depressive symptoms by improving the way you interact with others.6
Unlike some of the other forms of psychotherapy for depression, IPT does not attempt to delve into your inner conflicts resulting from past experiences. Rather, it focuses primarily on your current relationships, how they may be impacting your depression symptoms, and ways that you can improve your interactions for a healthier state of mind.
Interpersonal therapy recognizes that depression is not always a “person issue,” but can also be caused by relationship issues.
IPT has been found to be effective for treating different types and severity of depressive disorders as well as other mental health conditions. This type of therapy may be best when combined with medication in certain circumstances.2
A 2013 review of the research found that IPT was as effective as CBT for the treatment of major depressive disorder and could be recommended as a first-line treatment for the condition.7
Some research has found that interpersonal therapy can help prevent the development of major depression.8
Engaging in IPT regularly may also help prevent depression relapses.
Research has also found that IPT showed significant effects in the treatment of eating disorders, anxiety disorders, substance use disorders, as well as other mental health conditions.8
Engaging in IPT as a couple has been found to improve depression and reduce relationship issues.9
Things to Consider
While IPT can be an effective and appealing treatment option, it may not be the best choice for everybody. Motivation plays a pivotal role in the treatment process; it can be difficult to create change if a person is not motivated or is unwilling to examine and address the role they play in their relationships.
It is also important to note that conditions such as depression and eating disorders may be recurrent conditions. Even after initial treatment, you may need maintenance sessions to help prevent relapse, reinforce skills, and maintain progress. This might involve a monthly session to brush up on skills or address changes in your life.
How to Get Started
You should expect your treatment to last for approximately 12 to 16 weeks. Sessions are structured and involve regular assessment, therapist interviews, and homework assignments.
During your first few appointments, your therapist will learn more about you, your symptoms, and your relationship history. Next, you will work with your therapist to address specific problem areas. The strategies used can be adapted as treatment progresses, so your goals, assignments, and sessions may change as your therapist continues to assess your progress.
IPT is available in a variety of formats ranging from individual to group sessions, and sessions in which you can either participate in person or through online therapy.
It may also be beneficial to combine IPT with other depression treatments. For example, research shows that combining therapy with medication is often more effective than doing either one on its own.10
Interpersonal therapy can help effectively treat depression and other mental health conditions by focusing on aspects of your relationships that might be fueling your condition. In some cases, it may even be helpful to bring significant others into the therapy process directly. Your doctor can help you determine whether IPT is right for your needs, as well as if it would work better if combined with other treatments.