What is Interpersonal Therapy?

Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen

Interpersonal therapy is a type of short-term psychotherapy model based on the work of Henry Stack Sullivan and then discussed at length in several articles and books by Gerald Klerman and Myrna Weissman, from the 1980s through the 2000s. Its principle aim is to treat conditions like unresolved depression. It may also be adapted for use with people who have conditions like anorexia or bulimia, unresolved grief, bipolar disorder, postpartum depression, or other conditions.

A woman in interpersonal therapy.
A woman in interpersonal therapy.

The main goals of interpersonal therapy are to intervene when a person is in the midst of crisis and evaluate the situations and relationships, which can contribute to more crises. The initial depression or other feelings are described in detail. Then the therapist takes a somewhat instructive role in helping clients understand in what ways they maintain their emotionally turmoil by their behavior and relationships.

The main goal of interpersonal therapy is to intervene when a person is in the midst of a crisis.
The main goal of interpersonal therapy is to intervene when a person is in the midst of a crisis.

It tends to be assumed that clients need to grieve and also that they have positioned themselves in a role where they are the “sick person.” The client must change this role and transition to a new one, which will require having a new skill set. Though based on psychoanalysis, the therapist is very much involved in this process.

How long interpersonal therapy takes can vary. Many people work for a few months and once they have recovered from the immediate problem they discontinue therapy. Yet there is a longer form of interpersonal therapy, which might prove helpful to many people in severe distress. This form means that clients will continue to work on relapse prevention by continuing to examine the way they function in relationship to others.

There are some potential benefits to approaches in interpersonal therapy. It is short, and unlike cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), which may also be used for many of these conditions, it doesn’t have much homework. CBT has proven extremely useful but it may hard to adapt to teens because of the amount of homework it requires. Like many therapies, interpersonal therapy is fully supportive of medication in order to help reduce symptoms too.

A disadvantage of this method is that many people aren’t fully trained in how to use it. There aren’t than many schools that teach it, which means that therapists attempting it may be doing so only by having read Klerman and Weissman’s work. This may not give them adequate time to practice it. However, with a skilled therapist who is trained, the method can be effective and is well received by many in the therapeutic community.

Interpersonal therapy may be useful for women suffering from postpartum depression.
Interpersonal therapy may be useful for women suffering from postpartum depression.
Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen

Tricia has a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and has been a frequent wiseGEEK contributor for many years. She is especially passionate about reading and writing, although her other interests include medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion. Tricia lives in Northern California and is currently working on her first novel.

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Discussion Comments

Ocelot60

@spotiche3- I had the same experience with interpersonal therapy as your friend. However, instead of switching to a different type of therapy, I discussed my concerns with my interpersonal therapist. She was very open to changing the course of the therapy to address my needs. After that, I found it to be much more beneficial.

Spotiche5

I have a friend who has an eating disorder and tried interpersonal therapy to help her deal with it. Though she felt like the therapy helped her learn certain things about her problems, she also felt like something was missing in her therapy sessions.

After talking about her concerns with her family doctor, my friend decided to take his advice and try working with a cognitive behavioral therapy specialist. For her, this treatment worked much better because it delved deeper into her issues.

My friend also liked the fact that she had to work on things at home as part of her treatment, such as a journal. She felt that this part of the therapy helped her understand the core causes underlying her issues with weight and food.

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