Interpersonal therapy (IPT) for depression is a form of psychotherapy that focuses on the relationships between a person and significant others. It is based on the idea that humans, as social beings, have their personal relationships at the center of psychological problems. Although a person’s depression may not be caused by any interpersonal event or relationship, it usually affects relationships and creates problems in interpersonal connections.
The goal of IPT is to improve and bolster communication skills so that a person with depression is better able to communicate with people and have his or her psychological needs met.
How Interpersonal Therapy Works
A patient and therapist meet for an average of 20 sessions; these are usually once a week and last about an hour. Before beginning treatment, a therapist will conduct an interview with the patient and create a treatment outline based on the problems the patient reports and the intended outcome of the sessions. Then at each session, the therapist and patient will focus on one or two of the key issues the patient is looking to resolve.
Unlike some other forms of psychotherapy, IPT does not seek to find an unconscious origin in the patient’s past as a way to explain present-day behavior. Instead, it focuses on the the present reality of depression and how more immediate difficulties may better explain symptoms. Symptoms of depression may further complicate interpersonal relationships, and this often causes the depressed person to seek resolution by turning inward or acting out.
Depressive episodes or depression often follows a major shift or adjustment in a person’s interpersonal environment. These changes fall into one of four categories:
- complicated bereavement — the death of a loved one or unresolved grief
- role transition — the beginning or ending of a relationship or marriage or diagnosis of a disease
- role dispute — a struggle in a relationship
- interpersonal deficit — the absence of a major life event
Once the therapist can explain the causal event (e.g., you’re having a difficult time coping with your wife’s sudden death), he or she tries to equip the patient with the skills to redirect negative emotions and feelings of depression in more healthful, positive ways.
The patient is urged to take part in social activities that were once stressful or too painful as a way to practice his new coping techniques. A successful therapy resolution comes when the patient is able to re-establish interpersonal relationships that had been strained or destroyed during the depressive episode. Maintenance therapy sessions might be required.
Conditions/Disorders It Treats
In addition to depression, patients experiencing the following disorders or problems also seek treatment with interpersonal therapy:
- bipolar disorder
- borderline personality disorder
- depression as a result of disease (such as HIV)
- depression as a result of caregiving
- eating disorders
- marital disputes
- panic disorder
- protracted bereavement
- substance abuse
What the Expert Says
“In its pure state, interpersonal psychotherapy is a very well-studied type of therapy,” says Daniel L. Buccino, a licensed certified social worker–clinical and an assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. “It generally focuses on the current relational context in which problems such as depression emerge, and it’s generally a bit more time limited and goal oriented in trying to bring about different relational patterns and solutions.” Several studies have found that, in the short term, IPT is equally as effective as treatment with antidepressant medication. In some cases, psychiatrists will use IPT in conjunction with medication therapy.