What Is Interpersonal Psychotherapy?

Interpersonal Psychotherapy (IPT) is a short-term (16 to 20 sessions) therapy that emphasizes the role of interpersonal issues and relationships. The focus therapy is on interpersonal issues that seem to be most important in the onset and/or maintenance of psychological distress. Usually, these involve a recent transition (e.g., divorce, marriage, break-up, moving, job loss, starting school), a dispute (e.g., marital problems, difficulties at work, family problems, difficulties with friends), a recent loss (e.g., miscarriage, death, illness) or negative interpersonal patterns. The first 1-3 sessions of IPT are devoted to the assessment and identification of your specific interpersonal stressors.

The remainder of the treatment is focused on helping you resolve these interpersonal issues.  Once these interpersonal issues are resolved, you will find that your quality of life and day-to-day functioning will improve, and your relationships with others will strengthen.  IPT works well either on its on, or in combination with Cognitive Therapy techniques.

Research studies have shown IPT to be an effective treatment for a range of problems for both adults and adolescents including depression, anxiety, stress, and eating disorders.  Research has also shown that IPT is just as effective in the treatment of depression as is anti-depressant medication. IPT is helpful for improving and strengthening interpersonal relationships, improving self-esteem, teaching you how to effectively communicate and take leadership roles, and increasing your sense of confidence in interpersonal situations.


The IPT Theory

IPT is based on the premise that interpersonal stressors are connected with psychological distress.  Negative life events do not cause psychological distress, but their relationship is important. Your ability to manage interpersonal crises is heavily influenced by your biological make-up (e.g., genetic vulnerability to illness), and psychological factors such as temperament, attachment style, and personality.  Social factors such as your current significant relationships and general level of social support can also affect your ability to cope.  The expectation in IPT is that once your interpersonal stressors are resolved, you will feel emotionally and physically better.

Preparing for Treatment

An important part of IPT therapy is resolving interpersonal stressor(s).  We encourage you to think about specific interpersonal situations or problems that are causing distress or that you would like to change.  Has there recently been a transition or change in your life or a significant loss? Or are there specific relationships you would like to change or improve?  Think about recurrent patterns that keep happening in interpersonal situations or relationships.   When treatment ends, you will be able to apply the skills and tools you have learned in therapy to your day-to-day life.

How IPT Works

During the first session, your therapist will ask you to explain your current situation and briefly review your psychological, medical, social, work and family and relationship history. You will also discuss your treatment goals and, if appropriate, fill out psychological measures.  Once all of this information has been gathered, your therapist will formulate and discuss with you a suitable treatment plan as well as give you feedback on the results of any psychological measures you completed.

The first three sessions of IPT are used to gather information about your relationships and interpersonal issues. You and your therapist will complete an interpersonal inventory that will help you identify both problematic and beneficial patterns in your relationships, as well as strengthen your social network.  The interpersonal inventory will also give you and your therapist a clear idea of the focus of therapy.  There are four main interpersonal focuses in IPT therapy – 1) Grief, 2) Transition, 3) Role Disputes, 4) Interpersonal Patterns.  Usually, one or two are chosen to work on for the remainder of treatment.

Grief problem areas can be selected as an important problem area to work on when you think a loss is directly related to your current psychological state.  Not all grief involves the death of a loved one.  Some losses, such as loss of health, loss of financial status, loss of friendships and infertility can be experienced as a grief reaction.
Role Transition can be selected as an important problem area to work on when you have experienced a recent life change.  Examples of transitions include break-ups, starting a new job/losing a job, moving, graduation/promotion, pregnancy/childbirth, and new roles with parents, children or spouses.
Role Disputes can be selected as an important problem area to work on when a conflict in a specific relationship (i.e., with a parent, spouse, children, friends, and coworkers) is directly affecting your mood.  Therapy will focus on helping you improving communication skills and resolving interpersonal conflict.
Finally, Interpersonal Patterns is chosen as a focus of therapy when you are having repetitive problems in interpersonal relationships (e.g., anger issues, repeated conflicts in relationships, insecurity in relationships).  Once you and your therapist have chosen a specific interpersonal area to work on, the remainder of therapy will focus on resolving this interpersonal stressor.  Communication analysis, problem-solving and stress reduction techniques are often used.  Other therapy techniques are selected based on the specific interpersonal area and are tailored to your specific needs

Although IPT is a brief treatment, it cannot be said across the board how long a successful therapy will take. Some people feel considerably better after a few sessions, while others need treatment for several months. The length of treatment will depend on the kind and severity of the problems, among other things