Interpersonal therapy: Things you need to know

A type of psychotherapy that seeks to develop strong attachments is interpersonal therapy (IPT). Research shows that it can help relieve the effects of many disorders of mental health.

IPT is a form of psychotherapy that can treat depression and certain other problems with mental health.

It was developed by two psychotherapists in the 1970s to deal with depression, and it has since been used by physicians to treat a number of mental health problems. Learn more in this article.

What is it?

Depressed man with doctor

IPT is a short-term form of treatment that normally lasts less than 12-16 weeks. It focuses on the cultivation of skills in communication and interpersonal efficacy; practitioners believe that many mental health problems stem from relationship deficits or role conflicts.

IPT practitioners endorse the notion of depression and other mental health conditions as real illnesses requiring treatment. In counseling, they reflect on this to avoid people from blaming themselves for their problems.

IPT proponents also claim that there is a close relationship between mood and life circumstances , especially relationships. Improving relationships can enhance the mental health of an individual.

An individual learns and practices skills in IPT sessions that can help heal relationships and avoid the creation of additional relationship problems.

How does it work?

IPT is a standardized form of therapy, meaning that in three different stages, treatment progresses.

A therapist can assess the problem within the first one to three sessions and help the client recognize the behavioral difficulties that have preceded or sustained the psychological distress.

An individual going through a breakup, for instance, may find that after the breakup their depression developed. The therapist will also create a “interpersonal inventory” that reviews the behavior history of the client in relationships and current relationship assessment.

IPT therapists agree that relationship and mental health problems are usually triggered by four areas of conflict. These are:

  • relationship conflicts that cause stress
  • life changes that alter a person’s role or relationships
  • difficulty beginning or maintaining relationships
  • grief or loss

Once the therapist and their client recognize the problem area that triggers the distress of the latter, therapy will concentrate on the management of this problem.

The therapist will develop tailored relationship techniques to improve interpersonal functioning during the middle portion of therapy. For instance, they may assist a client who is grieving the relationship and the role it represents after a breakup, then help them develop new skills and ways of relating to others.

The therapist will remind the client in the final weeks of therapy that therapy will end soon, and they will assist them to practice their new abilities.

A mixture of IPT and other treatments is used by some therapists. IPT can last longer or be less formulaic when this is the case.

The therapist will allow the client, as in all types of counseling, to explore their feelings, recognise patterns in their behavior, and be honest about their recovery objectives. Often, the therapist must keep the client’s data confidential.

Studies consistently indicate that IPT works well for depression , especially depression related to relationship problems.

For other psychological disorders, more recent research has begun to test IPT. A 2020 study of family caregivers of individuals with schizophrenia, for instance, found that IPT coupled with psychoeducation could help boost self-efficacy and reduce the burden of care for the family.

Origins

In the 1970s, IPT was founded by psychotherapists Myrna Weissman and Gerald Klerman to treat mood disorders such as depression. They drew on the research of John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth, who studied the role attachments play in relationships, particularly in early life.

IPT practitioners highlight research demonstrating that social factors are often significant factors in the onset and maintenance of depression, such as the loss of a relationship.

Weissman and Klerman used IPT to treat depression and other mood disorders based on this evidence. Since then, researchers have shown that social phobia, anxiety disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, and eating disorders can also be treated by IPT.

IPT vs. other types of therapy

Most research shows that both IPT and other forms of therapy work. It also appears to have better outcomes in some situations.

Studies comparing IPT with placebo and cognitive behavioral therapy ( CBT) were discussed in a 2005 meta-analysis of IPT for the treatment of depression. IPT was more effective than CBT and placebo, and it offered similar results to medication.

The efficacy of IPT for different mental health conditions was tested by a far larger 2016 meta-analysis. The researchers found no substantial difference between IPT and other clinically evaluated studies by drawing on data from 90 studies.

In the treatment of depression , eating disorders, and related problems, IPT was successful, although the research indicates that in the early stages of eating disorder treatment, CBT is likely to be more effective.

IPT builds upon many theories, including attachment theory. Its methods are also similar to those of several other approaches. Emotionally concentrated counseling, for instance, often prioritizes attachments and human relationships.

Strengths and weaknesses 

Some strengths of IPT include:

  • a focus on relationships, communication skills, and life situations rather than viewing mental health issues as things that occur in a vacuum
  • a structured, formulaic approach that makes it easier to track progress
  • an ability to build a strong relationship with the therapist, which may enable the client to test new skills

Research has repeatedly shown that IPT works well for transitions and conflict in depression and relationships. Although several studies have shown that IPT works well for some other conditions, there is less consistent evidence, and some other treatments can work better.

One possible IPT weakness is its shorter timeframe, which does not provide adequate help for individuals with chronic or relapsing mental health problems. That said, IPT practitioners understand that for recurring symptoms, maintenance sessions might be appropriate.

Also, its formulaic approach can mean that if a person drops out early or can not pay for ongoing care, counseling does not provide relief.

Summary

IPT can motivate a person, like all types of psychotherapy, to improve the way they think about and interact with others.

For those suffering from lost relationships or trying to make their relationships work, the emphasis on relationships can be particularly helpful.

IPT is a highly beneficial treatment choice and can be an alternative to medicine for people with depression.

It is important to consult with a licensed mental health specialist with expertise in the treatment of the particular problem for which the individual requires care, no matter what treatment a person chooses.

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