Interpersonal Therapy (IPT)

What is interpersonal therapy (IPT)?

Interpersonal therapy (sometimes called IPT or interpersonal psychotherapy) is a form of psychotherapy that focuses on building interpersonal and communication skills with the goal of strengthening relationships. Generally, IPT is a structured, evidence-based approach to treat mental disorders including major depression and mood disorders, as well as other mental health problems.

Interpersonal psychotherapy involves learning to identify your existing strengths and using them to nurture and support positive, meaningful relationships. In IPT, a big part of the therapist’s job is to help you learn new interpersonal skills and support you as you practice using them, both inside and outside of your therapy sessions. IPT also focuses in part on intrapersonal skills, such as gaining perspective on yourself and your thoughts.

IPT usually follows clear clinical treatment guidelines and is designed to be completed over about 12 to 16 weeks (about three and a half months).


What interpersonal therapy can help with

IPT can be helpful for a many mental health issues, including:

  • Anxiety - Including panic attacks, post-traumatic stress disorder, and phobias.
  • Depression - Depression symptoms include extended periods of sadness or irritability that interfere with your daily life.
  • Eating disorders, such as anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa
  • Bipolar disorder - Mood swings that fluctuate between mania to major depressive disorder
  • Issues relating to perinatal mental health - pregnancy has its own challenges, sometimes depression occurs post-partum, as well as anxiety, PTSD, and OCD.

Effectiveness of interpersonal therapy  

Research has found empirical evidence that interpersonal psychotherapy (IPT) is often helpful in treating several different mental health conditions.

Because IPT was first developed as a brief treatment of depression, there are many studies showing effectiveness for people dealing with depressive disorders. For example, one review of 38 studies found that IPT was helpful in treating depression both as a stand-alone mental health treatment and in combination with medication. [1]

A similar review also found that IPT is effective in treating people with eating disorders. [2]

How does Interpersonal Therapy (IPT) work?

IPT is based on the idea that depression and other mental health issues can be caused or worsened by issues in our present-day, significant relationships with other people. IPT focuses on improving a person’s relationships rather than improving symptoms, with the belief that better human relationships and more social support will in turn lead to improved mental health.

In particular, interpersonal psychotherapy focuses on processing four distinct kinds of common interpersonal issues:

  • Relationship conflicts or dissatisfaction in personal relationships, which can lead to painful feelings like sadness and anger
  • Issues related to major life changes (such as having a baby or moving to a new city), which can change how people feel about themselves and their relationships with others
  • Grief related to the death of a loved one or other recent interpersonal loss
  • Loneliness, isolation, and other challenges related to starting relationships

How often are Interpersonal Therapy (IPT) sessions held?

IPT sessions are generally held weekly. However, some mental health professionals may recommend more or less frequent sessions, based on your symptoms and treatment goals.

How long does Interpersonal Therapy (IPT) treatment last?

IPT usually lasts for 12 to 16 weeks. Some versions include only individual therapy, while others may include some group therapy sessions.

How are Interpersonal Therapy (IPT) sessions structured?

IPT is a relatively structured therapy. Though not all treatments will be exactly the same, IPT generally includes the following treatment phases:

  1. Initial assessment. Your first three sessions will usually focus on working with your therapist to establish a full picture of your mental health challenges and how they may relate to your interpersonal issues. Your therapist will also guide you through an “interpersonal inventory” at this stage, during which you will discuss the various relationships in your life and identify any patterns in how you tend to relate to others.
  2. Defining a treatment focus. Drawing on the information you covered in the first phase, you and your therapist will find a focus for your treatment. This might involve processing grief around a relationship, resolving conflict with another person, or dealing with relational changes related to a life transition.
  3. Learning and implementing new strategies. As your treatment progresses, you will learn new communication and relational skills in your sessions. Then, you will practice using them both inside and outside sessions. Many therapists assign homework to guide this phase of treatment.
  4. Reevaluating goals. Midway through the treatment process, you and your therapist will evaluate whether your previously defined goals still make sense. You might shift your focus slightly at this point or pick a new goal if you’ve made noteworthy progress on the previous one. For example, you may have begun to treat mood disorders (depressive symptoms) but accompanying anxiety disorders become the new focus.
  5. Continued practice. In the later phase of your treatment, you’ll continue to work with your therapist on improving your relationships using the new skills you’ve developed in sessions.
  6. Ongoing assessment. IPT generally involves frequent check-ins about your progress. There will also be time devoted at the end of treatment to reviewing what you’ve worked on and figuring out strategies you can rely on going forward or maintenance treatment options.

What happens in a typical Interpersonal Therapy (IPT) session?

IPT can involve a wide range of techniques in the middle phases of treatment. A few common activities you might work through with your therapist to find your interpersonal deficits include:

  • Role-playing: Your therapist will help you act out conversations and interpersonal disputes, so that you can practice techniques before conflicts occur in real-world settings.
  • Brainstorming options: Together, you and your therapist will come up with diverse ways that you might handle various relationships and decide on a course of action to try using.
  • Analyzing interactions: You’ll often discuss your interactions with other people in detail, so that your therapist can do a communication analysis and help you better understand the interpersonal context of what went wrong or right.
  • Tracking patterns: Though IPT focuses mostly on present relationships, you might also discuss past relationships to gain insight into how you tend to relate to people. Understanding your interpersonal functioning or social skills is key to treatment.
  • Observing your thoughts: Your therapist will help you learn to listen to your existing self-talk and observe how it might be affecting your relationships with yourself and, consequently, other people.

What should I look for in an Interpersonal Therapy (IPT) therapist?

Therapists for IPT may be social workers, psychologists, psychiatrists, or another kind of mental health professional. No matter what kind of therapist you choose to work with, make sure that they meet the following criteria:

  • An advanced degree in a mental health field
  • Licensure to practice in the state where you live
  • Additional experience and/or training using IPT
  • Connections to and/or willingness to work with medical professionals, if you suspect that you might need medication as well as psychotherapy, this may be important if you are trying to treat depression or another mental illness.
  • If applicable, experience working with people who share your specific concerns (if you’re dealing with a certain mental health condition) or identity (if you feel that any aspect of your identity may be relevant to treatment)

New to therapy? Learn about how to find a therapist here.