Psychotherapy — also often called "talk therapy" or simply "therapy" — is one of two first line treatments for depression, the other of course being antidepressants. Anyone with moderate to severe depression is likely to benefit from a combination of the two, while people with mild depression can often recover with the help of therapy alone.
First things first: What's interpersonal psychotherapy?
OK. You know what "psychotherapy" is, and you probably know what "interpersonal" is, too, but in case you don't, it refers to anything that goes on between people — mostly relationships of any kind, and communication. Interpersonal psychotherapy, IPT for short, is, then, a kind of therapy that focuses on relationships between you, the person going through it, and other people in your life.
IPT aims to help you find new and better ways to deal with these common "interpersonal problems":
- Grief (which can trigger adjustment disorder with depressed mood as well as major depression).
- Role transition — where you struggle with your place in the world as it is changing, like when you retire, have a baby, or get divorced.
- Role dispute — where you have conflict with people who matter to you.
- Interpersonal deficits — being socially isolated and lonely.
In therapy, you'd analyze your feelings, your situation, your past, other people in your life, and work on creating solutions. The therapist will provide a listening ear and teach you the techniques that have been shown to help.
1. Interpersonal psychotherapy is a pretty effective treatment for depression
A large number of scientific studies have examined how well interpersonal therapy works — how effective it is at treating depression. It is important, here, to point out that the fact that one therapy works well doesn't necessarily reflect badly on another therapy that also works well, but anyway:
- Research has shown that interpersonal psychotherapy has a "moderate to large" effect as a depression treatment. That means it's pretty effective.
- IPT in combination with antidepressants was found to be more effective than IPT alone, but not much more effective.
- Studies have not indicated that interpersonal therapy is better at helping people recover from depression than cognitive behavioral therapy — a form of therapy that's still more well-known — but it also hasn't shown it to be less effective. The two appear to offer similar benefits.
2. Interpersonal therapy is quick
When you're depressed, you'll benefit from therapy that works — fast — so you can feel better as soon as possible and get on with your life. Interpersonal therapy was designed to be "time-limited", which means you should notice a significant improvement in your symptoms in a short period of time. The standard format consists of 12 to 16 sessions, one a week, which may last for 45 minutes to an hour. Some people have only eight sessions, and this can also work well.
Your therapist will give you "homework", but the good news is that therapy sessions will only take a short time, and that you can reasonably expect to feel a lot better within a predetermined time frame.
3. Interpersonal therapy is there to help you overcome interpersonal difficulties
No two depressed people are the same, so it's logical that different people are going to benefit from different treatment approaches. Cognitive behavioral therapy, the other major therapy option, focuses on helping patients identify erroneous thought patterns and unhelpful behaviors, so that they can then change them. Some people are going to have problems with this central idea, as it assumes that you have trouble with "wrong" thinking and "destructive" behaviors by definition.
These aren't the central ideas of interpersonal therapy, which instead helps you develop better ways of coping, better ways of relating to other people, better ways to problem-solve interpersonal problems, better ways of expressing yourself, and better ways to build social support systems. That sounds a whole lot more positive, doesn't it?
Interpersonal problems are unlikely to be the sole cause of major depressive disorder and other diagnoses that fall under the "depression" umbrella, but they can absolutely contribute as well as worsen your symptoms. It makes sense that this more outward-looking therapy could help you, then.