Interpersonal Psychotherapy for Depression

Posted on May 30th, 2013
Posted in Depression

Interpersonal psychotherapy (IPT), also known simply as interpersonal therapy, is a short-term form of therapeutic treatment used to treat a number of mental health conditions. During the treatment, patients learn how to decrease the severity of their mental health-related symptoms by improving the ways in which they interact with others. Evidence gathered from more than 250 modern studies supports the usefulness of IPT as a psychotherapy option for people affected by varying degrees of medically serious depression. The benefits of the therapy generally apply to both teenagers and adults.

Interpersonal Psychotherapy Basics

Interpersonal therapy was created at Yale University in the 1970s by a team of researchers investigating the usefulness of psychotherapy and certain antidepressant medications in the long-term treatment of major depression. At the time, there was very little evidence regarding the effectiveness of the most popular psychotherapeutic approach used in depression treatment, called psychodynamic therapy. The creators of IPT acted out of a desire to form a psychotherapeutic approach that could be tested in real-world conditions and produce provable, repeatable results.

Interpersonal psychotherapists believe that many mental health problems have their origin in significantly stressful social and personal interactions with other people. While some people can easily withstand the psychological impact of these unpleasant interactions, others cannot; as a result of this inability, affected individuals experience stress-related mental and physical reactions that lay the groundwork for the eventual onset of a psychological/psychiatric problem. Specific factors that influence a given person’s susceptibility to interpersonal stress include the types of emotional bonds he or she forms with other people, genetic predisposition, and individual nuances of personality and temperament.

Usually, patients receive IPT as an outpatient treatment over the course of six to 20 weekly sessions. During these sessions, participants focus on problems they have in one or more of four different interpersonal areas, known loosely as grief and loss, disputes with others, difficulties transitioning between roles, and problems either starting or maintaining a friendship or relationship. Instead of focusing on a participant’s entire history of these problems, the therapy focuses on the ways in which current problems degrade a sense of well-being. In addition, instead of trying to gain some sort of overarching insight regarding his or her condition, the patient focuses on learning real-world techniques that improve mental health.

Effectiveness in Adults

In a study published in 2007 in the British Journal of Psychiatry, a team of researchers examined the usefulness of interpersonal psychotherapy and another therapeutic approach—called cognitive behavioral therapy—in treating varying degrees of depression in adults. These two therapies were chosen because they represent the two most common psychotherapy options in depression treatment. In the initial phase of this examination, the researchers recruited 177 people diagnosed with major depression and randomly assigned them to receive a 16-week course of either IPT or cognitive behavioral therapy. In the second phase of the study, the researchers reviewed the benefits provided by each form of therapy with the help of follow-up testing.

After reviewing the results of the follow-up testing, the authors of the study concluded that interpersonal psychotherapy is equally as effective as cognitive behavioral therapy for treating mild or moderate depression symptoms. However, people with severe depression tend to receive a greater benefit from cognitive behavioral therapy than they do from IPT.

Effectiveness in Teenagers

In a study review published in 2010, the U.S Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) examined the usefulness of a modified form of IPT in treating teenagers with depression. This 12-week treatment, called interpersonal psychotherapy for depressed adolescents (IPT-A), is specifically meant to address mild to moderate depression symptoms, not severe symptoms. Unlike standard IPT, it includes considerable input from a patient’s parents in the form of consultation and education during the initial phase of therapy, parent-child sessions during the course of treatment where appropriate, and assessment of the real-world results of therapy in the aftermath of treatment.

SAMHSA views interpersonal psychotherapy as a generally effective treatment for both girls and boys between the ages of 13 and 17, with benefits that include a reduction in depression symptoms, an improved ability to function socially, and improved interactions within the family unit. However, not all people experience a satisfactory outcome after the standard 12 weeks of treatment. If necessary, psychotherapists who practice IPT-A can increase the length of treatment to 16 weeks. The parents of teens who don’t see an improvement in their symptoms past this timeframe typically need to consider additional options.

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