Interpersonal Therapy For Depression

Updated October 2, 2022 by BetterHelp Editorial Team

Interpersonal therapy (also known as interpersonal psychotherapy) was first developed in the 1970s when tricyclic antidepressants were the main treatment for major depressive disorder. In fact, the tactics and techniques of interpersonal psychotherapy were designed for use in a treatment trial that would be used to determine the best combination and duration of treatment with tricyclic antidepressants and psychotherapy. This form of psychotherapy proved to be more effective than anyone imagined in emotional maintenance treatment.

Now, interpersonal psychotherapy, along with cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), are recognized as the two most effective psychotherapeutic treatments for major depression and other mental health concerns. This treatment can be received in person or through online therapy services, and either individually or in a group setting. This treatment has also proven effective for anxiety, drug and alcohol addiction, bipolar disorder, persistent mild depression (dysthymia), eating disorders, and social phobia.

We Don't Always Know How To Manage Symptoms Of Depression

Interpersonal Psychotherapy Definition

Interpersonal psychotherapy (IPT) is a form of psychotherapy that takes into account your physical, mental, and social vulnerabilities, along with cultural and spiritual factors. Interpersonal therapy’s main focus is on social roles and interpersonal relationships because these factors have proven to be significant precursors to major depression and other mood disorders.

A Scientific Treatment

Interpersonal therapy is a scientific approach that builds upon interpersonal theory and psychosocial research on depression. In fact, interpersonal psychotherapy was originally developed as a research intervention, so it wasn’t until recently that anyone beyond researchers was using this form of psychotherapy. However, the research success of interpersonal therapy from the 1970s to the studies done by NIMH’s Depression Collaborative Research Program was consistent. Over time, it became clearer and clearer that interpersonal therapy was effective as a treatment of depression and should be utilized beyond research clinics.

Because of this research success, mental health professionals were eager to try this technique for their patients. Therefore, in 2004, an article in World Psychiatry announced that interpersonal therapy was officially being practiced by clinicians. Just two years earlier, the International Society of Interpersonal Psychotherapy was officially incorporated and created its own credentialing processes to ensure therapists were properly trained in this newer form of psychotherapy.

Are Mental Disorders in Our Biology?

What makes interpersonal psychotherapy different from CBT are the concepts and techniques behind the treatment. First, the person with the disorder is viewed as having a medical condition. It isn't their fault, and there is no reason to blame themselves for not doing better or trying harder. Depressive disorders (such as major depression), mood disorders, anxiety disorders, posttraumatic stress disorder, etc., happen to them; it is not caused by them.

Another unique feature of interpersonal psychotherapy is that it highlights the connection between the client's mood and any disturbing life situations (such as grief, divorce, or losing a job) that may have caused or compounded their disorder. Furthermore, interpersonal psychotherapy is a short-term, present-focused treatment method that is based on attachment theory, communication theory, and the biopsychosocial/cultural/spiritual genesis of disorders. Therefore, it incorporates multiple theories and ideas from multiple behavioral sciences.

Interpersonal Treatment Goals

Every type of therapy has its own goals. For instance, CBT has the goal of changing thoughts so that feelings and behaviors can also change. For interpersonal psychotherapy, the primary goals are to reduce psychiatric symptoms, work on relationships, and build a network of social support, all while teaching interpersonal skills and working on interpersonal deficits.

Concepts Behind Interpersonal Treatment

Several concepts, also called tactics, make up the core of interpersonal psychotherapy. Aside from the biopsychosocial/cultural/spiritual basis of interpersonal psychotherapy already discussed, this assumes an Interpersonal Triad and makes use of an Interpersonal Inventory. The main treatment with this interpersonal triad and interpersonal inventory takes place as you and the therapist discuss your problems and agree on goals for improving your coping skills.

Interpersonal Triad

Interpersonal psychotherapy theory suggests that depression, mood disorders, and other mental disorders begin after an acute interpersonal crisis. This crisis may be somewhat relieved, or it might be exacerbated, depending on your attachment style and biopsychosocial/cultural/spiritual strengths and weaknesses. If you also have inadequate social support, the problem with depressive symptoms or major depressive disorder is compounded further. The Interpersonal Triad is this combination of factors that add up to cause your distress. The Triad includes:

  • An acute interpersonal crisis
  • Your own strengths and vulnerabilities (attachment style, personality, biopsychosocial/cultural/spiritual)
  • Lack of social support

When all three factors in the Triad are going against you, it's more likely you'll succumb to a mental disorder.

What Is It Like to Have Interpersonal Therapy?

Interpersonal psychotherapy may be quite different from what you imagine it to be. It is a focused, intensive, brief, and time limited modality that follows a specific set of rules and procedures. So, what is it like to see a therapist for interpersonal psychotherapy? Although your therapist will tell you everything you need to know to complete interpersonal psychotherapy, learning more may make the experience less stressful for you.

Three Phases of Interpersonal Therapy

Interpersonal psychotherapy is a highly-structured treatment that has three distinct phases. No matter what happens during the time limited 45-60-minute weekly sessions, treatment continues along this path in standard interpersonal psychotherapy. The three phases are:

  • Beginning phase- This is the assessment period that includes the Interpersonal Inventory, psychiatric history, etc. This phase is designed to take place in the first three time limited sessions.
  • Middle phase- The middle is the heart of the treatment. This is where the work of interpersonal psychotherapy is done. You focus on resolving the problem area that you've set out to improve while your therapist practices supportive listening.
  • Final phase - In the last phase of treatment, the only goal is to end the therapeutic relationship on a positive note.

Interpersonal Therapy: Inventory

If you begin interpersonal psychotherapy, you might begin by taking a test called the IP Inventory. This tool helps the therapist understand where you're getting or lacking social support, who you confide in and how healthy those relationships are, who you're romantically attached to, the status of your current relationships and past relationships, how you communicate with others in daily life, interpersonal issues or interpersonal disputes, and any problems in your relationship that might have led to your depressive episode.

This is when a therapist might study references to your environment, previous or current mental illness, relationships, and medication history all come into play. The efficacy of this stage can be found through success in those working through trauma, finding new strategies to approach depressive episodes, and the principles at play.

Interpersonal Problem Areas

Since interpersonal psychotherapy is a scientific treatment, it has specific rules about how to proceed. The first step after the IP assessment is to identify the problem area to focus on or any interpersonal deficits. In interpersonal psychotherapy, there are only four options to choose from here. They are:

  • Grief - when a loved one has died.
  • Role dispute - when a close personal relationship is marked by differences in role expectations.
  • Role transition - when you're transitioning from one role to another, such as when you change jobs or move.
  • IP deficits - when none of the other three options fits and you've had ongoing problems with relationships for a significant period of time.

Interpersonal Psychotherapy Techniques

Many of the techniques used in interpersonal psychotherapy are quite different from those used in cognitive-behavioral or other types. The focus, as always with interpersonal psychotherapy, is on improving interpersonal relationships.

Interpersonal incidents are things that happen in a relationship. When you or your loved ones behave in ways that keep you from meeting your needs, you have a crisis that may lead to symptoms of a mental disorder, such as depressive symptoms. The therapist must examine and analyze these interpersonal relationships to help you find better ways of behaving within them while improving your interpersonal functioning and addressing any interpersonal deficits.

Role Playing

Role-playing is a common technique used in many different treatment modalities for interpersonal relationships. It is especially helpful in interpersonal psychotherapy because it gives you the opportunity to explore interpersonal situations you're in and work on your interpersonal skills.

Communication Analysis

Your therapist may do an exercise called communication analysis to help you find problems in your interpersonal communication skills. You begin by thinking of an interaction that happened between you and another person. You write out the scene as if you were writing a play, including the setting and all the words and gestures of the "actors."

The therapist will read your "movie script" and may ask you questions about it. For example, they might ask you what you or the other person intended when they said or did something. They might then ask you to tell what they actually communicated.

After you've analyzed this incident of interpersonal communication, it might proceed to a role-playing exercise in which the therapist coaches you on better ways to handle such an incident.

Explaining interpersonal behavior requires a certain amount of detail. Theories and details help explain this treatment, but at this point, you may be wondering, "Yes, but what's the bottom line? How does interpersonal psychotherapy really help with mental disorders like depression and social phobia?"

The key is in the word "interpersonal." Interpersonal psychotherapy is designed for situations where the problem is poor interpersonal functioning.

Interpersonal psychotherapy assumes that what happens between you and the people you interact with is the cause of your mental disorder. Assuming that is true, the best possible solution is to improve your skills.

Finding a Therapist for Interpersonal Psychotherapy (IPT)

We Don't Always Know How To Manage Symptoms Of Depression

Perhaps you find yourself having a crisis. You're grieving, arguing with your partner, or settling into a new position at work. Perhaps you live with depressed adolescents, or you have recurrent depression. If you recognize that you're getting depressed, anxious, developing mood disorders, or otherwise disturbed, you may realize that the problem lies in your skills. If so, you might want to try interpersonal psychotherapy for emotional maintenance treatment and help in an interpersonal context or to treat mood disorders and major depression. Treatment progresses with you, ensuring that interpersonal psychotherapy is helping you through clinical treatment guidelines to accomplish your treatment goals.

Finding a therapist for interpersonal psychotherapy may be easy or difficult, depending on what your personal resources are and where you live. Transportation may be an issue for people who live in rural areas or have to drive through heavy traffic to reach the therapist's office.


Fortunately, you can have convenient, inexpensive mental health treatment through individual or group therapy by going online to BetterHelp if you are looking into treating depression or any other mental health disorder. There, licensed therapists with clinical training are available to help their patient's ability to learn better ways to interact, build their support system, and gain physical and emotional strength no matter if they are struggling with mood disorders or looking for help with big life changes.

BetterHelp: Get The Support And Help That You Need

With BetterHelp, you can have treatment wherever you like. You can remain anonymous if you choose, too. In addition, there are therapists with different specialties so that you can choose someone with experience in the type of therapy you prefer, whether that's cognitive-behavioral or IPT.

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