What is Interpersonal Psychotherapy (IPT)?
Interpersonal psychotherapy is an approach to psychotherapy that originated over 20 years ago as a way to treat individuals with major depressive disorder. A main focal point of IPT is on a person’s social functioning and interpersonal relationships. IPT highlights four problem areas which are believed to be the main contributing factors to depression. When working with an interpersonal therapist, the client is able to determine which of the four main problem areas are contributing the most to their depression. Once this is determined, therapy can shift toward healing and/or coping with the identified area.
The four basic problem areas contributing to depression (as recognized in interpersonal therapy) are:
- Unresolved grief: Losing a loved one is difficult, and grieving looks different for everyone, but there is a line between the healthy process of grieving and when it can become detrimental (referred to as unresolved and/or complicated grief). When a person experiences “healthy” grief, they are usually able to return to normal functioning within a few months (although this does not mean they are no longer sad, processing feelings, etc.). Unresolved grief is grief which is either delayed and experienced long after the loss, or grief that impacts a person returning to normal functioning for an extended period of time.
- Role disputes: Role disputes occur when a client and a significant person (a spouse, a parent, a close friend, a coworker, etc.) in their life have differing (and often contradictory) expectations about their individual roles within the relationship.
- Role transitions: Depression is extremely common for people in periods of major transition. Major life transitions often include role changes (i.e. – becoming a new father, getting a divorce, retiring), which can leave many unsure how to cope.
- Interpersonal deficits: If a client has a history of problems in forming and sustaining healthy relationships, this is likely connected to the deterioration of their mental health and wellbeing. The area of interpersonal deficits also encompasses social isolation or involvement in unhealthy and/or unfulfilling relationships.
Interpersonal psychotherapy presumes that by improving one’s communication patterns, ability to relate to others, and capacity for grieving the loss of relationships, mental health and wellbeing will be improved.
Upon its origination, IPT was somewhat influenced by the psychodynamic approach to therapy, in that there is a similar focus on emotions, and on the creation of a strong therapist-client relationship. However, IPT is unique from psychodynamic therapy in that it is far more “present-day” focused, emphasizing the client’s current emotions and relationships struggles (and how to resolve), rather than exploring the deep-seated sources of their symptoms. Interpersonal therapy also draws from more cognitive- and behavioral-based approaches, in that it looks at a person’s maladaptive thoughts and behaviors, but only so far as they relate to interpersonal relationships.
What to Expect in Interpersonal Psychotherapy
IPT is an attractive option for many people, due to it being a time-limited treatment (usually 12-16 weeks). Research has shown the short-term nature of IPT helps therapists retain clients for the course of treatment, as compared to longer-term treatment approaches where client drop out rates are high. Interpersonal psychotherapy is less directive than other approaches, such as cognitive-behavioral therapy, but still has structure due to the inherent framework of the approach. This framework can be seen in the three phases of interpersonal therapy.
- Phase 1 – the first three sessions, where the therapist will assess client symptoms and explore their social and relationship history. This is where a client’s unhealthy patterns, expectations, etc. are usually identified (problem areas)
- Phase 2 – the next few sessions are where the therapist will assist the client in implementing healthy coping strategies directly related to the identified problem area(s).
- Phase 3 – the last phase of treatment includes helping the client plan for maintenance as they begin to transition away from therapy and back to the “real world” on their own. This phase may also be used to address any other problem areas that have been identified as the therapeutic process progressed.
An interpersonal therapist will likely assign therapeutic homework at some point throughout the course of treatment, along with an ongoing assessment of progress and continuing (or emerging) struggles. It is important to note that clients of IPT must have internal motivation for change, and be willing to explore their own role in the presenting problem(s), in order for treatment to be effective.
Who Can Benefit from IPT?
Although interpersonal therapy got its start as a treatment for depression, it’s applications have grown over the years, as more and more research on IPT has emerged. Today, IPT is considered a versatile and flexible approach to psychotherapy, and thus, is used in treating a variety of different mental health struggles and diagnoses. In fact, interpersonal therapy is now considered an empirically validated treatment for:
- Disordered Eating
- Substance Abuse Issues
- Postpartum Depression
- Social Phobia
- Post Traumatic Stress
Find a therapist that is skilled in interpersonal therapy.
Klerman, G. L., & Weissman, M. M. (1994). Interpersonal psychotherapy of depression: A brief, focused, specific strategy. Jason Aronson, Incorporated.
Markowitz, J. C., & Weissman, M. M. (2004). Interpersonal psychotherapy: Principles and applications [Electronic version]. World Psychiatry, 3(3), 136-139.
Reynolds, C., et. al. (1999). Nortriptyline and interpersonal psychotherapy as maintenance therapies for recurrent major depression: A randomized controlled trial in patients older than fifty-nine years. Journal of the American Medical Association. 281: 39-45.
Wilfley, Denise E., & Shore, Allison L. (2015). Interpersonal psychotherapy. International Encyclopedia of the Social & Behavioral Sciences. 631-636.
Wurm, C, Robertson, M, & Rushton, P. (2008). Interpersonal psychotherapy: An overview. Psychotherapy in Australia, 14(3), 46-54.