Interpersonal therapy (IPT) is a type of psychotherapy that aims to cultivate strong attachments. Research suggests that it can help improve the symptoms of several mental health conditions.
Two psychotherapists developed it in the 1970s to help with depression, and clinicians have since used it to treat a variety of mental health issues. Learn more in this article.
IPT is a short-term form of therapy that usually lasts for fewer than 12–16 weeks. It focuses on cultivating communication and interpersonal effectiveness skills; practitioners believe that many mental health issues stem from relational deficits or role conflicts.
IPT practitioners endorse the notion of depression and other mental health conditions as real illnesses requiring treatment. They focus on this in therapy to prevent clients from blaming themselves for their challenges.
Proponents of IPT also argue that mood and life situations, especially relationships, are closely related. Improving relationships can improve a person’s mental health.
In IPT sessions, a person learns and practices skills that may help heal relationships and prevent the development of additional relationship issues.
IPT is a structured type of therapy, which means that treatment progresses in three distinct phases.
During the first one to three sessions, a therapist will diagnose the issue and help the client identify the interpersonal issues that preceded or maintained the psychological distress.
For example, a person going through a breakup might notice that their depression developed after the breakup. The therapist will also develop an “interpersonal inventory” that reviews the client’s pattern of behavior in relationships and evaluation of current relationships.
IPT therapists believe that four areas of conflict typically trigger relationship and mental health issues. These are:
- relationship conflicts that cause stress
- life changes that alter a person’s role or relationships
- difficulty beginning or maintaining relationships
- grief or loss
Once the therapist and their client identify the area of conflict that causes the latter’s distress, therapy will focus on managing this conflict.
During the middle portion of treatment, the therapist will develop targeted relationship strategies to bolster interpersonal functioning. For example, they might help a client who is going through a breakup mourn the relationship and the role it represents, then help them cultivate new skills and ways of relating to others.
In the final weeks of treatment, the therapist will remind the client that treatment will be ending soon, and they will help them practice their new skills.
Some therapists use a combination of IPT and other therapies. When this is the case, IPT may last longer or be less formulaic.
As with all forms of therapy, the therapist will encourage the client to discuss their emotions, identify patterns in their behavior, and be open about their goals for treatment. The therapist must also keep the client’s information private.
Research consistently suggests that IPT works well for depression — especially depression related to relationship issues.
More recent research has started to test IPT for other psychological issues. For example, a 2020 study of family caregivers of people with schizophrenia found that IPT coupled with psychoeducation could help improve self-efficacy and reduce the family’s care burden.
In the 1970s, psychotherapists Myrna Weissman and Gerald Klerman developed IPT to treat mood disorders such as depression. They drew upon the research of John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth, who studied the role that attachments, especially in early life, play in relationships.
IPT practitioners highlight research showing that social factors, such as the loss of a relationship, are often major factors in the onset and maintenance of depression.
Drawing on these data, Weissman and Klerman used IPT to treat depression and other mood issues. Since then, researchers have shown that IPT can also treat social phobia, anxiety disorders, post-traumatic stress disorder, and eating disorders.
Most research shows that IPT works about as well as other types of therapy. In some cases, it even seems to provide better results.
A 2005 meta-analysis of IPT for the treatment of depression looked at studies that compared IPT with a placebo and with cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). IPT was more effective than CBT and placebo, and it offered similar results to medication.
A much larger 2016 meta-analysis assessed the effectiveness of IPT for various mental health issues. Drawing on data from 90 studies, the researchers found no significant difference between IPT and other clinically evaluated studies.
IPT was effective in treating depression, eating disorders, and similar issues, though the study suggests that CBT is likely more effective in the early stages of eating disorder treatment.
IPT builds upon many theories, including attachment theory. Therefore, its methods are similar to those of some other approaches. For example, emotionally focused therapy also prioritizes attachments and human relationships.
Some strengths of IPT include:
- a focus on relationships, communication skills, and life situations rather than viewing mental health issues as things that occur in a vacuum
- a structured, formulaic approach that makes it easier to track progress
- an ability to build a strong relationship with the therapist, which may enable the client to test new skills
Research has consistently shown that IPT works well for depression and relationship transitions and conflict. Although many studies have shown that IPT works well for some other issues, the evidence there is less consistent, and some other therapies may work better.
One potential weakness of IPT is its shorter timeline, which may not offer enough support for people with chronic or relapsing mental health issues. That said, IPT practitioners recognize that maintenance sessions may be necessary for recurring symptoms.
Also, its formulaic approach may mean that therapy does not offer relief if a person drops out early or cannot pay for continued treatment.
Like all forms of psychotherapy, IPT can empower a person to change the way they think about and interact with others.
The focus on relationships may be especially helpful for those grieving lost relationships or struggling to make their relationships work.
For people with depression, IPT is a highly effective treatment option that may be an alternative to medication.
No matter which treatment a person chooses, it is important to work with a licensed mental health counselor with experience in treating the specific issue for which the person seeks care.