Interpersonal therapy, or interpersonal psychotherapy, (IPT) is a time-limited, highly structured form of psychotherapy (talk therapy).
IPT typically consists of 12–16 hour-long sessions with a trained therapist. Sessions occur in one-on-one or group settings.
Along with cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), IPT is the psychotherapy most commonly recommended for treating depression. Originally developed as a brief treatment for depression, IPT has been adapted to treat many other mental health disorders.
IPT differs from other types of psychotherapy in its focus on an individual’s current social relationships and interactions.
- Present focused: IPT focuses on current relationships, not those in the distant past.
- Goal orientated: Your therapist and you will work to identify a small number of therapeutic goals.
- Time limited: IPT is typically delivered in 12–16 weekly sessions.
- Highly structured: IPT involves structured interviews and assessments.
- Evidence based: Numerous studies have found IPT to be an effective treatment for depression and other mood disorders.
Foundation of IPT
The foundation of IPT rests on these two notions:
- First, mental health disorders such as depression are medical illnesses that have complex biological and environmental causes. They are no one’s fault.
- Second, our moods and mental health affect our social relationships. In turn, our social relationships and social functioning affect our moods. Forming and maintaining strong, supportive relationships and improving social functioning can therefore help alleviate the symptoms of depression and those of other mental health disorders.
IPT was initially developed in the 1970s by psychiatrist Gerald Klerman, researcher Dr. Myrna Weissman, and colleagues as a treatment for major depression in adults. It is based on American psychiatrist Harry Stack Sullivan’s interpersonal theory—the idea that interpersonal relationships are the primary driving force in human life.
Since its introduction, researchers have adapted IPT for other mental health disorders and for use in teens and children. IPT originally was used in research studies but has since moved into clinical practice.
IPT was initially developed as a time-limited treatment for depression, for which several studies have found it effective. IPT is often used in conjunction with antidepressants. The combination of IPT and antidepressants is a more effective treatment for depression than either one of these therapies alone.
Additional studies have found IPT can help treat a variety of mental health disorders, including:
- Major depressive disorder (mood disorder causing a persistent feeling of sadness and loss of interest)
- Prevention of depression relapse (a recurrence of depression symptoms)
- Multisomatoform disorder (a disorder in which a person experiences severe and disabling physical symptoms such as chronic pain, but for which no underlying cause can be found)
- Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD, a disorder triggered by a traumatic event)
- Perinatal depression (depression occurring during or shortly after pregnancy)
- Postpartum depression (depression that starts within a year of giving birth)
- Personality disorders such as borderline personality disorder or narcissistic personality disorder (disorders involving long-term patterns of rigid and unhealthy thoughts and behaviors)
- Anxiety disorders (facing situations with fear and dread and with physical signs)
- Substance use disorder
- Dysthymia (persistent, mild depression)
- Eating disorders such as bulimia and anorexia nervosa
- Bipolar disorder (mental health disorder causing extreme mood swings)
IPT has been studied as a treatment for depression and found to be as effective as CBT in treating depression and in preventing depression relapse. Although IPT alone can help alleviate depression, it works best when provided in conjunction with antidepressants.
Several types of IPT are in use. Some of the most common types are:
Dynamic Interpersonal Therapy
Sometimes also known as psychodynamic interpersonal therapy or mentalization-based therapy, this type of IPT focuses on understanding your own thoughts, feelings, and desires as well as those of others, and how those thoughts, feelings, and desires affect behavior. It is often used for treating borderline personality disorder, a mental health disorder impacting the way you think and feel about yourself and others and causing problems with everyday functioning.
Metacognitive Interpersonal Therapy
Metacognitive interpersonal therapy focuses on understanding the basic social motives underpinning human behavior. It uses these drives and motives as a lens for understanding your own thoughts, feelings, and beliefs as well as the thoughts, feelings, and beliefs of others.
Metacognitive interpersonal therapy emphasizes recognizing and overcoming maladaptive social behaviors (such as avoidance, withdrawal, and passive aggression) stemming from those thoughts, feelings, and beliefs. This type of therapy is sometimes delivered in a group setting.
Interpersonal and Social Rhythms Therapy
Interpersonal and social rhythm therapy (IPSRT) is designed to treat bipolar disorder. It emphasizes the importance of regular sleeping and eating schedules as well as social functioning in helping people with bipolar disorder avoid mood episodes and manage their symptoms. It is used in combination with medication.
Despite being highly structured, each person’s therapeutic experience is unique, because IPT is tailored to the specific mental health condition being treated and to an individual’s needs and goals.
During your first few sessions of IPT, your therapist will learn about your symptoms and goals, catalog your important interpersonal relationships, and work with you to identify one or two problems within your social interactions.
These problems in your social interactions generally fall into one of these four buckets:
- Interpersonal or role conflicts: Problems relating to others at work, school, home, or other settings. These often stem from maladaptive behaviors, expectations, or beliefs.
- Role transitions: Difficulties adjusting to recent life changes, such as becoming a parent, getting divorced, or losing or changing your job
- Grief: Emotional problems related to the loss of a loved one
- Interpersonal deficits: Deficiencies in the number or quality of a person’s social relationships
In the next phase, your therapist helps you find ways to understand and tackle the identified issues. To do so, your therapist may engage in several strategies, which are:
- Clarification: Identifying the thoughts, feelings, and desires contributing to certain behavior patterns within your relationships
- Role-playing: Trying out different communication styles and behaviors with your therapist
- Empathetic listening: Providing a warm, emotionally comfortable place for sharing your thoughts and feelings
- Communication analysis: Helping you understand how others might be perceiving your behavior and communications
- Encouragement of affect: Allowing you to express your full range of emotions in a safe environment, to help identify and accept undesired or unpleasant emotions
Your sessions will also involve structured interviews and assessments. Outside of your sessions, your therapist may encourage you to share your thoughts and feelings with other people or to engage in social activities that you have previously avoided.
As your IPT progresses, your therapist will take more of a backseat as you apply your new perspectives and interpersonal skills to solve your problems.
During your final sessions, your therapist will help you adjust to ending your therapeutic relationship and becoming more independent in managing your interpersonal relationships.
Sometimes IPT continues beyond the initial 12–16 weeks as a maintenance therapy to prevent a relapse. Maintenance therapy typically occurs less frequently than the initial round, on a monthly rather than weekly basis.
A Word from Verywell
IPT is a well-studied and heavily supported treatment for depression and other mental health disorders. In contrast to some other popular forms of therapy, like CBT (which focuses on an individual’s thoughts and behaviors) and the psychodynamic approach (which focuses on past and current relationships and subconscious thoughts and emotions), IPT focuses primarily on current interpersonal interactions and social functioning.
As with any therapy, IPT works best when you find a therapist with whom you feel safe and comfortable sharing your innermost thoughts and feelings.