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Interpersonal Therapy

Interpersonal Psychotherapy places strong emphasis on personal relationships and examines how they can contribute to emotional distress. It is a Brief, time-limited form of therapy that focuses on improving interpersonal interactions and communication patterns in order to alleviate conditions such as depression.


The approach originates from the work of 1930’s psychiatrist Harry Sullivan who suggested that a person’s interpersonal contact with others might help to shed light on any existing psychological disorders. Many of his theories are based on studies he conducted into schizophrenia and personality disorders.

Sullivan’s theories were further developed at Yale in the late 1960s during studies into the effectiveness of antidepressants when used on their own and with psychotherapy.

Up until this time, a form of Psychodynamic Therapy was used to treat acute depression together with Tricyclic Antidepressants. Although the efficacy of these treatments had already been proved, there was little information about how long the treatment should continue, or how useful psychodynamic therapy was in tackling depression.

To address the scarcity of evidence, psychiatrists, Dr. Eugene Paykel and Dr. Gerald Klerman conducted clinical studies which included a standardised type of supportive psychotherapy that was applied on a weekly basis. This type of ‘high contact’ therapy eventually became known as Interpersonal Therapy.


The approach does not belong to any particular school of psychotherapy, but its origins can be traced back to Psychodynamic theory. In addition, IPT is similar to Cognitive Behavioural Therapy because application is time-limited and includes assessment mechanisms like client homework and structured interviews.

Practitioners focus on the here-and-now and seek to actively engage the client about immediate problem areas such as disputes with family or friends.

A great deal of emphasis is placed on tackling depression – the Interpersonal approach identifies four main problem areas that are thought to bring about the illness:

  • role disputes
  • role transitions
  • unresolved grief
  • interpersonal problems

During sessions the therapist will try to help the client identify which of the above is most responsible for their depression. Therapy is then directed at resolving this problem area.

Depression is considered to be a treatable illness rather than the result of any personal defect and is not considered the client’s fault. This can relieve the client of any self-blame and make it easier for them to address and overcome the condition.

On average, there are between 16-20 sessions which usually occur once a week. Treatment tends to be very structured with three phases: a beginning, middle and end.

The first phase is concerned with identifying the target diagnosis. During the second phase, the therapist devises strategies to deal with the identified problem area and the third phase involves an appraisal of the work that the client and therapist have undertaken. The transitional nature of the soon to end sessions is then addressed.

How can Interpersonal Therapy Help?

IPT can prove very effective in treating acute forms of depression such as Bipolar Disorder and Major Depressive Disorder. Research has also found that it can be useful in treating eating disorders such as Bulimia Nervosa. In addition, the approach has been adapted for use with adolescents and in some cases, children.

Useful Resources for Interpersonal Therapy

International Society For Interpersonal Psychotherapy