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 communication skills so that a person with depression is better able to communicate with others.

How Interpersonal Therapy Works

A patient and therapist meet for an average of 20 sessions. Sessions are usually once a week and last about an hour. Before beginning treatment, a therapist will conduct an interview with the patient. A therapist will create a treatment outline based on the problems the patient reports and the intended outcomes of the sessions. At each session, the therapist and patient will focus on 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 current behavior. Instead, it focuses on the present reality of depression and how more immediate difficulties may better explain symptoms. Symptoms of depression may further complicate interpersonal relationships. This often causes the depressed person to seek resolution by turning inward or acting out.

Depressive episodes or depression often follow a major shift 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, they try to equip the patient with the skills to redirect negative emotions in more positive ways.

The patient is urged to take part in social activities that were once stressful or too painful as a way to practice new coping techniques. A successful therapy resolution comes when the patient is able to re-establish interpersonal relationships that had been strained. Maintenance therapy sessions might be required.

Conditions Treated by Interpersonal Therapy

In addition to depression, interpersonal therapy may also treat:

  • bipolar disorder
  • borderline personality disorder
  • depression as a result of disease (such as HIV)
  • depression as a result of caregiving
  • dysthymia
  • 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 together with medication therapy.