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What is interpersonal therapy used for

Interpersonal psychotherapy is a relatively new therapy that was developed as a research intervention, and until recently, most practitioners of IPT were researchers. Its research success has led to its inclusion in clinical treatment guidelines and growing interest among clinicians, but the standards for clinical training for non-researchers are still being defined. The International Society for Interpersonal Psychotherapy, an international umbrella organization, deliberates training concerns and allows countries to develop their own credentialing processes for interpersonal psychotherapy.

A therapist should help the patient identify any interpersonal issues he or she wants to address, and rank them in order of importance. The therapist should also offer support regarding clarification of issues, communication analysis, and supportive listening.

This therapist can be found in clinics, private practice, and other settings and institutions.

Screen your potential therapist either in person or over video or phone. During this initial introduction, ask the therapist:

  • How they may help with your particular concerns

  • If they have dealt with this type of problem before

  • The process and timeline for treatment

What is Interpersonal Psychotherapy (IPT)​?

IPT is a form of psychotherapy that focuses on relieving symptoms by improving interpersonal functioning. It addresses current problems and relationships rather than childhood or developmental issues. Therapists are active, non-neutral, supportive and hopeful, and they offer options for change.


  • is structured
  • is time-limited (active phase is usually 12–16 weeks)
  • focuses on interpersonal relationships and communication
  • focuses on here-and-now relationships
  • aims to improve interpersonal functioning and social support.

IPT is delivered in one-to-one and group formats.

How does Interpersonal Psychotherapy (IPT)​ work?

A central idea in IPT is that psychological symptoms can be understood as a response to current difficulties in everyday relationships with other people.

IPT focuses on four areas:

  • conflict in relationships that is a source of tension and distress
  • life changes, such as job loss or the birth of a child, that affect people’s feelings about themselves and others
  • grief and loss
  • difficulties in starting or sustaining relationships

When people learn effective strategies for dealing with their relationship problems, their symptoms often improve.

The structure of IPT

The opening sessions (1-3) focus on collecting information and making decisions about the focus of therapy. The therapist helps the patient create a list of all the key relationships in the patient’s life (interpersonal inventory). These relationships are grouped according to the four main problem areas.

In the middle sessions (4 – 14), the patient concentrates on trying to improve the chosen problem area or areas with the support of the therapist. The patient and therapist work to develop solutions to the problems, and the patient tries to implement the solutions between sessions.

The final sessions (15 – 16) focus on dealing with any sense of loss associated with the end of therapy as well as reviewing the issues that were identified in the interpersonal inventory and the progress made in dealing with them.

Who can Interpersonal Psychotherapy (IPT)​ benefit?

IPT is most often used during the acute phase of major depression, but it can also be provided as a maintenance treatment to help prevent relapse and recurrence of illness.

It is also used to treat:

  • anxiety
  • bulimia nervosa
  • chronic fatigue
  • mood disorders such as bipolar and dysthymic disorders.

IPT has been adapted to treat patients from adolescence to old age. It is effective as a stand-alone treatment and in combination with medication.

Related Programs & Services

Interpersonal Psychotherapy (IPT) is a time-limited, diagnosis-targeted, well studied, manualized treatment for major depression and other psychiatric disorders. Therapists help patients to solve an interpersonal crisis as a way of both improving their lives and relieving their symptoms. IPT helps patients to understand their emotions as social signals, to use this understanding to improve interpersonal situations, and to mobilize social supports. Its success in a series of research studies has led to its inclusion in numerous national and international treatment guidelines.

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Time-limited: IPT typically is scheduled as a 12-16 week, once weekly therapy for acute major depression.

Diagnosis-targeted: IPT has demonstrated efficacy as an acute and as a maintenance treatment for major depression, and for patients from adolescence to old age; with adaptation, as an adjunct to medication for bipolar disorder; for bulimia and binge-eating disorders; and, with less research support, for posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and anxiety disorders.

Well studied: The late Gerald L. Klerman, M.D., Myrna M. Weissman, Ph.D. and colleagues published the first randomized IPT trial in 1974. They found in initial studies that IPT was more effective than a placebo; that in combination with medication it fared better than either treatment alone; and that on one-year follow-up, IPT helped patients to build social skills, which medication did not. Since 1974 there have been more than 250 randomized controlled studies of IPT published by research groups around the world.

For more information about IPT, see this brief overview by co-founder Myrna Weissman


Basic Principles.  Interpersonal Psychotherapy (IPT) is a time-limited, focused psychotherapy for the treatment of depression .  IPT builds on empirical evidence demonstrating reciprocal relationships between mood symptoms and interpersonal relationships. Its basic principles assume that helping patients to improve problematic interpersonal relationships or circumstances that are directly associated with the current mood episode will result in symptom reduction. Iteratively, improvement in mood will lead to additional spontaneous improvement in interpersonal functioning which, in turn, will lead to further reductions in mood symptoms.  Thus, the primary goals of IPT treatment are symptom remission and improved interpersonal functioning.

Theoretical Rationale. IPT’s development was influenced by the interpersonal school of psychology and its leaders such as Harry Stack Sullivan and Adolf Meyer.  Sullivan argued that psychopathology arose in the context of conflict between an individual and his primary social unit.  Meyer extended Sullivan’s argument, drawing the distinction between the psychoanalytic focus on intra-psychic conflict as a primary locus of psychopathology versus an emphasis on interpersonal conflicts as the genesis of psychophathology in the interpersonal school.  IPT also draws on the work of Frieda Fromm-Reichmann who emphasized the social roots of depression, Jerome Frank who articulated a sociocultural definition of psychotherapy, and attachment theorists such as John Bowlby.

Medical Model. IPT uses the medical model as a conceptual framework for patients’ mood symptoms.  In the context of initiating IPT, the therapist conducts a psychiatric history and diagnoses a current episode of major depression according to DSM 5 criteria. The IPT therapist likens the depressive episode to other medical illnesses (“no different than asthma or diabetes or pneumonia”) and further explains that the patient has an inherited, biologic vulnerability to depression. Using the medical model as a framework, the IPT therapist stresses that it is not the patient’s “fault” for developing depression–any more than it is someone’s “fault” for developing pneumonia.  Using a stress-diathesis model to explain the interaction between biological vulnerability and stressful life events, IPT further posits (and makes explicit to patients) that although individuals are not to blame for their illness, they are in an excellent position to help themselves recover from depression by attending to the interpersonal factors that may serve as triggers for the underlying biologic illness.

Interpersonal therapy, or IPT, is a short-term, focused treatment for depression. Studies have shown that IPT, which addresses interpersonal issues, may be at least as effective as short-term treatment with antidepressants for mild to moderate forms of clinical depression. Originally developed to treat depression in adults, it has been shown to be effective in treating adolescent depression and is commonly recommended as a treatment for depression in children.

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Events surrounding interpersonal relationships do not cause depression. But depression occurs within an interpersonal context and affects relationships and the roles of people within those relationships. By addressing interpersonal issues, interpersonal therapy for depression puts emphasis on the way symptoms are related to a person’s relationships, including family and peers.

The immediate goals of treatment are rapid symptom reduction and improved social adjustment. The long-term goal is to enable people with depression to make their own needed adjustments. When they can do that, they are better able to cope with and reduce depressive symptoms.

What Is Interpersonal Therapy?

Interpersonal therapy (IPT) is a short-term form of psychotherapy, usually 12 to 16 sessions, that is used to treat depression and other conditions. As its name suggests, IPT focuses on your interpersonal relationships and social interactions—including how much support you have from others and the impact these relationships have on your mental health.

When IPT was first developed, many mental health professionals conceptualized depression as “person-based.” That is, depression was not considered to be based on a person’s environment. IPT, on the other hand, recognizes that a person’s relationships can have a huge impact on mental health.

Types of Interpersonal Therapy

There are a couple of different adaptations of interpersonal therapy that you may encounter, including dynamic and metacognitive.

Dynamic Interpersonal Therapy

Dynamic interpersonal therapy (DIT) is also sometimes referred to as psychodynamic interpersonal therapy or mentalization-based therapy. DIT is designed to help you better understand your own thoughts and feelings, as well as the thoughts and feelings of others. It generally consists of 16 sessions over the course of five months.

Metacognitive Interpersonal Therapy

Metacognitive interpersonal therapy (MIT) is an integrative approach to address personality disorders with prominent emotional inhibition (holding back your emotions) or avoidance. One 12-week study found that engaging in MIT helped reduce depression symptoms and improve the ability to identify emotions.

Interpersonal therapy is also sometimes used in a modified form of couple’s therapy, such as when marital troubles are contributing to depression.


Because IPT takes the approach of improving depression by improving relationships, it begins with the therapist conducting an interpersonal inventory. This inventory is a detailed review of your significant relationships, both current and past. These relationships are then grouped according to four main problem areas.


Depression can occur as a result of the loss of a loved one. While it is normal to go through the stages of grief in this type of situation, a major loss can also result in unresolved grief. This is grief that is delayed (remains for a long time after the loss), distorted, or grief in which you may not feel emotions, but instead experience other symptoms related to depression such as insomnia and fatigue.

Role Dispute

Role disputes occur when you and the significant people in your life have different expectations about your relationship. An example of this is if you feel that your spouse should display more affection or ask more questions about your day. The disconnect between expectations and real-life behavior can cause feelings of depression.

Role Transition

Depression may occur during life transitions, when your role changes and you don’t know how to cope with that change. Getting married, getting divorced, becoming a parent, and retiring are all examples of role transitions.

Interpersonal Deficits

If you find it difficult to form and maintain good quality relationships, IPT can help identify your interpersonal deficits. This can include any feelings of inadequacy you may have, whether you find it difficult to express your emotions, and other feelings or beliefs that are preventing you from communicating effectively.

Your therapist can help you determine which area is the most responsible for your current problems. Therapy is then directed at helping you deal with this specific interpersonal issue.

What Interpersonal Therapy Can Help With

IPT was originally created to be a short-term treatment for depression. However, it has also been shown to be an effective treatment for a number of other conditions including:

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It may also be helpful for dealing with attachment issues, grief, life adjustment and transitions, and relationship conflicts,

Benefits of Interpersonal Therapy

Interpersonal therapy can have a number of important benefits, including:

  • Improved relationships: IPT can help patients understand how their relationships affect their life. The goal is two-fold: to help patients function better socially and to reduce their feelings of depression.
  • Decreased depression: This form of psychotherapy is based on the notion that depression occurs in the context of relationships. In other words, your relationships can potentially increase or decrease your depression, and feeling depressed can impact your relationships. As such, the goal of IPT is to relieve your depressive symptoms by improving the way you interact with others.

Unlike some of the other forms of psychotherapy for depression, IPT does not attempt to delve into your inner conflicts resulting from past experiences. Rather, it focuses primarily on your current relationships, how they may be impacting your depression symptoms, and ways that you can improve your interactions for a healthier state of mind.

Interpersonal therapy recognizes that depression is not always a “person issue,” but can also be caused by relationship issues.

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IPT has been found to be effective for treating different types and severity of depressive disorders as well as other mental health conditions. This type of therapy may be best when combined with medication in certain circumstances.

  • A 2013 review of the research found that IPT was as effective as CBT for the treatment of major depressive disorder and could be recommended as a first-line treatment for the condition.
  • Some research has found that interpersonal therapy can help prevent the development of major depression. Engaging in IPT regularly may also help prevent depression relapses.
  • Research has also found that IPT showed significant effects in the treatment of eating disorders, anxiety disorders, substance use disorders, as well as other mental health conditions.
  • Engaging in IPT as a couple has been found to improve depression and reduce relationship issues.

Things to Consider

While IPT can be an effective and appealing treatment option, it may not be the best choice for everybody. Motivation plays a pivotal role in the treatment process; it can be difficult to create change if a person is not motivated or is unwilling to examine and address the role they play in their relationships.

It is also important to note that conditions such as depression and eating disorders may be recurrent conditions. Even after initial treatment, you may need maintenance sessions to help prevent relapse, reinforce skills, and maintain progress. This might involve a monthly session to brush up on skills or address changes in your life.

How to Get Started

You should expect your treatment to last for approximately 12 to 16 weeks. Sessions are structured and involve regular assessment, therapist interviews, and homework assignments.

During your first few appointments, your therapist will learn more about you, your symptoms, and your relationship history. Next, you will work with your therapist to address specific problem areas. The strategies used can be adapted as treatment progresses, so your goals, assignments, and sessions may change as your therapist continues to assess your progress.

IPT is available in a variety of formats ranging from individual to group sessions, and sessions in which you can either participate in person or through online therapy.

It may also be beneficial to combine IPT with other depression treatments. For example, research shows that combining therapy with medication is often more effective than doing either one on its own.

Interpersonal therapy can help effectively treat depression and other mental health conditions by focusing on aspects of your relationships that might be fueling your condition. In some cases, it may even be helpful to bring significant others into the therapy process directly. Your doctor can help you determine whether IPT is right for your needs, as well as if it would work better if combined with other treatments.