What is Interpersonal Counseling?

Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen

Interpersonal counseling (IPC) is a derivative form of interpersonal therapy (IPT). IPT is a brief therapy technique that has antecedents in the work of Harry Stack Sullivan, but has been modified into its own form of therapy since the 1980s. It consists of roughly 12 to 16, 50-60 minute sessions and has been suggested for treatment of conditions like depression. The IPC method is a shortened form of IPT that usually consists of six sessions that last no more than half an hour.

Counselors conduct brief sessions with patients during interpersonal counseling.
Counselors conduct brief sessions with patients during interpersonal counseling.

In both interpersonal counseling and therapy, therapists work with clients over issues like depression in context of the way symptoms have formed and the way they affect social functioning. At the same time, both IPT and IPC evaluate how social functioning is affected by things like arguments, transitions in roles, experience of grief, or by few or poor interpersonal relationships. One difference with IPC is that a person need not be a therapist to perform it. The short method is recommended especially for primary care specialists who may have patients that don’t require a full psychiatric workup, but are still suffering emotional pain.

People suffering from grief might benefit from short 15 to 30 minute chats with a physician for a few weeks.
People suffering from grief might benefit from short 15 to 30 minute chats with a physician for a few weeks.

There are different indications for interpersonal counseling. Some people suffering from disorders like dysthymia, minor depression, or grief might benefit from short 15 to 30 minute chats with a physician for a few weeks. Others are better served with interpersonal therapy or with another therapeutic method. The few studies on IPC and depression suggest positive benefit from the therapy when administered by physicians or therapeutic trainees. These studies also utilized medication to treat depression, so it may be difficult to tell whether interpersonal counseling or antidepressants most accounts for positive patient changes.

Interpersonal counseling may help people suffering from dysthymia or mild depression.
Interpersonal counseling may help people suffering from dysthymia or mild depression.

In practice, interpersonal counseling is a method where doctors or other counselors adhere fairly strictly to a playbook of options. They keep focus on the interpersonal aspects and do not diverge from them. IPT is also fairly rigid in its application, and it automatically discards things like major personality issues. Since it is meant to be a short therapy it doesn’t delve into issues of transference and countertransference, but it doesn’t ignore them. It also employs some cognitive behavioral therapy techniques.

There are critiques of interpersonal counseling. Doctors employing it don’t always have the time to judiciously use it, and some patients are better off with longer counseling formats. With some psychiatric illnesses it can take months to find the right type of medications that work effectively, but patients undergoing IPC are in and out the door in six weeks.

Some clinical trials have also shown a high dropout rate for IPT. The emphasis on reducing counseling time is considered by many to be a sop to insurance companies or government health systems. Finding inexpensive counseling options that are short-term is more financially manageable, but may not always be in the best interest of the patient.

In some cases, bereavement and grief therapy is part of a broader treatment plan.
In some cases, bereavement and grief therapy is part of a broader treatment plan.
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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