Interpersonal Psychotherapy (IPT)

Reviewed by Cathy Zegarowicz Leeson, SLP

Our relationships play an important role in our lives. When we’re experiencing problems in our relationships, interpersonal psychotherapy may help.

What Is Interpersonal Psychotherapy (IPT)?

Interpersonal psychotherapy (IPT) is a short-term, focused approach to treating mental health disorders such as depression or anxiety. This form of psychotherapy focuses on an individual’s interpersonal relationships. Interpersonal relationships are the relationships we have with other people. They include socialization skills, family dynamics, and conflict with others. 

Interpersonal psychotherapy is based on the understanding that a person’s relationships greatly influence their experience of depression and other mood disorders. Common sources of interpersonal conflict include:

  • Relational conflict: Conflicts between loved ones usually arise when expectations for one another’s roles are not expressed, mutually understood, shared, or met. Such conflict can have a significant effect on a person’s mental health.
  • Interpersonal deficits: Interpersonal relationships affect us greatly, even when they are absent or lacking. Loneliness and isolation can worsen symptoms of mental health disorders like depression.
  • Grief: Suffering a loss can trigger a depressive episode or deepen existing depression. 
  • Role transition: Changes in a person’s role can lead to depressive symptoms, even if those changes are wanted, such as employment, marriage, parenthood, or retirement.

Goals of IPT

The goal of interpersonal psychotherapy is not to treat the symptoms of mental health disorders, but to improve interpersonal relationships. This improvement may decrease the stress of social interactions which might be contributing to the symptoms. IPT is designed for clients to meet their goals in a short amount of time, with the termination of therapy as the end goal.

Interpersonal Psychotherapy and Depression

While interpersonal psychotherapy can be used to help treat a range of mental health concerns, it was originally developed for the treatment of depression. IPT addresses three different aspects of depression, as described by the International Society of Interpersonal Therapy1. These include:

  • Personality issues: IPT identifies personality traits that may be contributing to interpersonal relationship difficulties, but focuses on finding solutions rather than placing blame on the individual.
  • Symptom formation: IPT focuses on how symptoms of depression may be related to someone’s interpersonal relationships.
  • Social functioning: IPT looks at how well someone interacts with others and identifies their risk for things like social isolation.

What Else Does IPT Treat?

Improving interpersonal relationships has been shown to reduce symptoms for a number of mental health concerns. Aside from depression, interpersonal psychotherapy can be used to treat:

Who Is IPT for?

Anyone who is struggling with symptoms of depression, other mood disorders, anxiety disorders, eating disorders, and other mental health concerns might benefit from interpersonal psychotherapy. Both adults and children can receive IPT to improve their interpersonal relationships, adjust to new roles, address grief, and improve communication skills. A professional therapist can help you decide if IPT is right for you. 

How Does Interpersonal Psychotherapy Work?

Unlike other therapeutic methods such as cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and dialectical behavior therapy (DBT), which focus on changing one’s thought and behavior patterns, IPT works by examining relationship patterns. 

Interpersonal psychotherapy can be broken up into three different phases. The first stage occurs over three sessions. In this beginning stage, a therapist works to identify specific concerns, determining a client’s relationship patterns and the current state of their relationships. They will then determine a focus for treatment that might involve grief, a significant life event, a specific relationship problem, or interpersonal deficits.  

During the middle stage of IPT, the therapist identifies the strategies that will work best to help their client overcome their problem. This might involve helping someone mourn if they are experiencing grief, helping them transition into a new role or relationship in life, or helping them decrease social isolation by teaching them social skills. 

In the final stage of treatment, involving the last few therapy sessions, the therapist works with their client to help them transition out of therapy. This might involve ending therapy sessions if a solution has been reached and the client is feeling confident in their interpersonal relationships.  Alternatively, the therapist and client may decide to meet less often. 

Techniques Used in Interpersonal Psychotherapy

Once the focus of interpersonal psychotherapy has been identified, a therapist may use several treatment techniques including:

  • Supportive listening: A therapist uses supportive listening to validate the client’s grief, anger, fear, or other emotions that might be affecting their interpersonal relationships. 
  • Understanding interpersonal issues: A therapist can provide clarification to help someone understand their interpersonal issues objectively. 
  • Communication analysis: The way we communicate can either help or hurt our relationships. With communication analysis, a therapist evaluates a person’s communication skills and helps them improve.
  • Role-playing: Role-playing is another technique that can improve communication by giving the client a chance to practice speaking with a loved one with whom there may be conflict.

IPT and Group Therapy

Interpersonal psychotherapy may also be used in a group therapy setting. Group therapy allows individuals to practice communication skills with each other, observe interpersonal interactions, and model effective behaviors. 

Before entering group therapy, a person will typically have several individual therapy sessions in which they will address their unique concerns and goals and learn the dynamics of group therapy. Groups are then formed to focus on a few common goals that every member has. 

How Long Does IPT Last?

Interpersonal psychotherapy is brief, occurring over the course of 12–16 weeks. Because IPT focuses intensely on just one or two problems, progress usually happens quickly. IPT typically involves hour-long sessions once a week. However, the frequency of sessions will be determined by the therapist and client. 

Find an IPT Therapist

The first step to starting interpersonal psychotherapy is to find a licensed therapist who is trained in IPT. Connect with an IPT therapist near you today.