Learn / The Importance of Relationships: Exploring Interpersonal Psychotherapy (IPT)

The Importance of Relationships: Exploring Interpersonal Psychotherapy (IPT)

Kayla Gill
 October 1st, 2022|   Clinically Reviewed by 
Rajnandini Rathod

Relationships play important roles in our lives. We rely heavily on our partners, family, and friends, and when our relationships suffer, our lives do too. This is the idea behind interpersonal psychotherapy (IPT). With this form of therapy, the goal is to enhance relationships and social support networks to alleviate the symptoms of depression and other mood disorders.

What Is Interpersonal Psychotherapy?

Interpersonal psychotherapy takes into account that humans are social creatures. As such, our relationships are one of the most important factors in determining how we feel. IPT is primarily used to treat depression, but can also treat other mood disorders like bipolar and borderline personality disorder (BPD).

Myrna M. Weissman, Ph.D., Professor of Epidemiology and Psychiatry at the New York State Psychiatric Institute, describes IPT’s core principles1 this way:

“The whole idea behind interpersonal psychotherapy is: whatever causes depression (and we know that it’s partly genetic and many environmental triggers), it occurs in an interpersonal context. So when a person first develops symptoms, something usually has gone on in their life to trigger it. And [IPT] is based on understanding those particular triggers: disputes with people you love, grief, loss of someone you love; big changes in your life so that your social supports or family attachments have dissolved.”

Another hardship that contributes to depression, she adds, is difficulty forming and maintaining attachments.

IPT is based on the disease model, meaning it sees depression not as the patient’s fault but as an illness they can recover from. Its main focus is improving your interactions with people in your life.

Elements of IPT

IPT starts with an interpersonal inventory.2 In this assessment, you and your therapist will take note of who is in your life, and whether they serve as a trigger or a source of support.

This therapy also emphasizes staying in the present and focusing on the issue at hand. Weissman explains:

“We realize that people have personalities. We know that their early childhood experiences formulate who they are and also trigger some of the events. But we try to deal with the current event that is the trigger in the here and now.”

A notable appeal of IPT is that it’s short-acting. It has a set beginning and end date, and can be applied in formats as short as 8 sessions.

What Happens in IPT Sessions

Typically, interpersonal psychotherapy takes place in 12-20 sessions over the course of 4-5 months.3 This shorter time period encourages patients to actively try to improve their situation. Unlike other methods, patients usually don’t do “homework.”

After an assessment, treatment occurs over 3 phases, each with specific goals.

Beginning Phase (Sessions 1-3)

During your first few sessions, you’ll identify areas to work on, tackle immediate problems, and set treatment goals. Your therapist will work with you to uncover how your diagnosis relates to your social interactions.

This is where you’ll perform the aforementioned interpersonal inventory. This looks at the following to better understand your social connections:

  • current relationships
  • relationship patterns
  • capacity for intimacy

You’ll then decide on one of the following 4 problem areas2 of focus during treatment:

  • grief over the loss of a loved one, or loss of self
  • role disputes: problems with an important person, like a significant other, family member, or friend
  • role transitions: life changes like career transitions or moves
  • skill deficits: difficulty communicating, keeping relationships, or other social shortcomings

IPT works on 1 issue at a time. Your therapist will usually treat the most upsetting problem first.

Once you and your therapist agree on the main issue, you’ll set goals for the duration of treatment. Then, you’ll move onto the middle phase—and start tackling the problems.

The Middle Phase

In the intermediate phase, you and your therapist will work together on your main interpersonal issue. Therapy focuses on the following to improve your relationships:

  • your ability to state your wants and needs
  • honoring angry feelings and learning healthy expression
  • empowering yourself to take social risks

During sessions, you’ll share events from the last week. If you had a good social experience, your therapist will reinforce the healthy behaviors that worked. In this dynamic, your therapist is your cheerleader. They want you to succeed, and to acknowledge your successes! Stepping outside your comfort zone to change your habits is no small feat.

If you felt like your social interactions went poorly, it’s okay. Just like your therapist cheers you on when things go well, they’re also there for you when they don’t. They can help you pinpoint what you can improve next time. To do this, you might role play different scenarios. This way, you’ll feel prepared to handle similar situations in the future because you’ve already practiced.

At the end of each session, you’ll review what happened and discuss your achievements. Your therapist will help you stay focused on your goals for the duration of your time together.

The End Phase (Last 3 Sessions)

As your treatment episode draws to a close, you’ll spend the last few sessions reflecting on what you accomplished and discussing areas that still need attention. Hopefully, you’ll feel more empowered to tackle problems on your own. This is the time to celebrate all the hard work you put in and own your ability to move forward, armed with new tools.

Even if you’ve made significant progress, you may not feel ready to stop therapy. IPT doesn’t have to end abruptly. Your therapist may recommend continued sessions focusing on another problem area. Or, you may decide to shift to another type of therapy. In either case, your therapist can help you create a plan for long-term progress and maintenance.

Format and Follow-Up

Depending on your needs and your therapist’s availability, you may decide to continue working together. This often entails more sessions for issues that are actively disrupting your life, and lower frequency for maintenance under more “normal” circumstances.

Like other forms of talk therapy, you can attend IPT sessions in person, online, or over the phone. In fact, research suggests that IPT over the phone4 is just as effective as it is in person.

Should You Consider Interpersonal Psychotherapy?

Interpersonal psychotherapy5 might not be for everyone. While therapists can adapt IPT to a variety of mental health conditions, IPT is designed to target social issues. People whose primary concern is their interpersonal relationships will probably benefit most.

That there are many paths to healing, and IPT is just one. It may be incredibly effective for some people, and not work so well for others. As Weiss says, “There shouldn’t be holy wars about which is best. There should be available a range of evidence-based psychotherapies. Some people will do fantastically well on CBT and not IPT, and vice versa.” Even patients who are successful in IPT commonly choose to pursue other therapies after completing their first treatment episode.

Why Interpersonal Psychotherapy Works for Depression

Interpersonal therapy is beneficial for depression6 since this disorder often follows a disruption in personal relationships. And according to research, close bonds with others help prevent depression7 —especially in the face of stressful situations. Because of this, it’s important to develop and nurture supportive social connections. They can help ease your depressive symptoms, or even erase them altogether if social issues are the root of your condition. And IPT is shown to improve these symptoms in various age groups. Studies show that interpersonal therapy improves depression8 rates in children, adolescents, adults, and older patients.

There are 2 main principles of IPT for depression:

  • Depression is not the fault of the patient, and is treatable.
  • There’s a clear link between a patient’s life experiences and their emotional state.

People with depression often blame themselves for things going wrong, but IPT reminds us that depressive symptoms are a natural result of stressful, life-changing events. This stress can also make relationships harder to manage. IPT aims to solve the problems caused by these social setbacks. And ideally, by doing so, you’ll feel less depressed.

Research suggests that IPT also improves recurrent depression.6 With this type of depression, treatment is sometimes recommended for several years.

Nurturing Your Relationships Helps You Heal

IPT can be very supportive for those with depression, especially if that depression results from issues with your relationships or social skills.

As you look for treatment options, keep in mind that your road to healing might have some unexpected twists and turns—and it’s all a normal part of the recovery process.

But it is possible to find joy again—in your relationships, and in yourself. And reaching out for help is the first step towards getting there.

View rehab centers that offer interpersonal therapy to connect with treatment facilities directly and learn about programs, pricing, insurance, and more.

Reviewed by Rajnandini Rathod

  1. What is interpersonal psychotherapy? (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HrClyDVL43I []
  2. Key IPT strategies | international society of interpersonal psychotherapy—Isipt. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://interpersonalpsychotherapy.org/ipt-basics/key-ipt-strategies/ [] []
  3. Rajhans, P., Hans, G., Kumar, V., & Chadda, R. (2020). Interpersonal psychotherapy for patients with mental disorders. Indian Journal of Psychiatry, 62(8), 201. https://doi.org/10.4103/psychiatry.IndianJPsychiatry_771_19 []
  4. Miniati, M., Marzetti, F., Palagini, L., Conversano, C., Buccianelli, B., Marazziti, D., & Gemignani, A. (2021). Telephone-delivered Interpersonal Psychotherapy: A systematic review. CNS Spectrums, 1–13. https://doi.org/10.1017/S1092852921000948 []
  5. Rajhans, P., Hans, G., Kumar, V., & Chadda, R. K. (2020). Interpersonal psychotherapy for patients with mental disorders. Indian Journal of Psychiatry, 62(Suppl 2), S201–S212. https://doi.org/10.4103/psychiatry.IndianJPsychiatry_771_19 []
  6. Markowitz, J. C., & Weissman, M. M. (2004). Interpersonal psychotherapy: Principles and applications. World Psychiatry: Official Journal of the World Psychiatric Association (WPA), 3(3), 136–139. [] []
  7. Saeri, A. K., Cruwys, T., Barlow, F. K., Stronge, S., & Sibley, C. G. (2018). Social connectedness improves public mental health: Investigating bidirectional relationships in the New Zealand attitudes and values survey. Australian & New Zealand Journal of Psychiatry, 52(4), 365–374. https://doi.org/10.1177/0004867417723990 []
  8. Markowitz, J. C. (1999). Developments in interpersonal psychotherapy. The Canadian Journal of Psychiatry, 44(6), 556–561. https://doi.org/10.1177/070674379904400603 []

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