Tarot Cards and Mental Health: Seeking Support Through Divination

In October 2020, Jude Hinson lost her job, her home and her grandfather. Then her fiancé left her – all in the space of 1 week.

“I felt completely out of control and completely responsible for the situation I was in,” Hinson recalls. “One thing I found incredibly helpful was using tarot as a way for me to look at my situation more objectively. It gave me some hope.”

Tinson had been reading tarot cards for over ten years. When the going got tough, they helped her to understand her situation.

In addition to reading cards every day, she continued to see a therapist once a week and take medication for depression and anxiety. Now that she’s doing better, she still plays cards about once a week.

Tinson is not alone in seeking solace in tarot.

And tarot card readers have reported (at least anecdotally) seeing a boom in business during the pandemic as people grapple with uncertainty.

“People were looking for the bigger messages,” says Fahrusha, who only goes by one name. She has worked as a tarot card reader for over 35 years.

Tarot may be becoming more mainstream, but not everyone is familiar with the practice. Although the historical origin is uncertain, tarot cards probably originated in the 14th century, brought to Western Europe from Turkey.

“Tarot…is a card game with culturally derived meanings that you can use for spirituality, art, and storytelling,” says trauma-focused therapist Aida Manduley, LCSW, who uses s/he pronouns.

Manduley sometimes draws cards for clients in sessions and says it’s a useful tool. However, they admit that it is not for everyone.

Read on for what professional tarot readers think about the pros and cons of using tarot for mental health.

There are several positives to using tarot cards for mental and emotional support and healing.

It turns self-care into soul-care

For generations, people turned to organized religion to find purpose in their lives and strength in difficult times.

More than a quarter of American adults said they considered themselves spiritual but not religious, the Pew Research Center reported in 2017. That’s an 8 percent increase from 2012.

Tarot cards fit into this trend.

Cindi Sansone-Braff, a New York-based author and tarot reader, calls tarot a spiritual practice that helps people understand themselves better.

“Sometimes when people are anxious and depressed, it’s a sign that their souls need nurturing,” says Sansone-Braff. “Tarot connects deeply with the soul. It’s a really good vortex to open up the subconscious and the collective unconscious… and find out what’s going on beneath the surface.”

It can complement the therapy

You don’t have to choose between seeing a therapist, taking medicine, and reading tarot. Like Hinson, many find tarot to be a valuable part of a holistic approach to mental health.

“Tarot isn’t a one-size-fits-all miracle cure for your mental health — but for me, it’s a big part of my mental hygiene regimen,” says Hinson.

Sansone-Braff sees clients taking similar approaches.

For example, she would refer a client with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) to a therapist. Still, she says she can often play a role in helping the person as well.

“I can help them deal with some of the lessons they may have learned [in therapy]Sansone-Braff says.

Tarot can open a dialogue

Sometimes Manduley’s customers struggle to open up. Tarot can help get the conversation going.

“If a person pulls out the death card and their understanding of the death card is different from mine, that’s a perfect time for us to talk about how the same situation can lead to different stories and interpretations,” they say. “[The death card] doesn’t have to be something negative, and we can use that to talk about life changes.”

This dialogue can help Manduley talk about solutions with customers. For example, maybe after that the person draws a tower card, which symbolizes abrupt change.

“It can open the door for you to think about changing a relationship, and maybe you didn’t give yourself permission to do that,” Manduley says.

It’s getting more and more representative

Manduley says some of the older tarot card games play on gender and class stereotypes.

“In many traditional card games, tarot cards are gendered and divided into male and female,” they say. “There is an inherent hierarchy, like kings and queens, which are monarchies.”

But Manduley notes that some artists, such as Emily Lubanko, Margaret Trauth (aka Egypt Urnash), and Fyodor Pavlov, are coming up with decks that go against these traditional views. This can help people gain a more inclusive understanding of their mental health issues.

“For people who don’t see themselves represented in organized religion, tarot is a way to engage spiritually,” Manduley says.

The factors below may discourage you from practicing tarot in your personal practice.

It may conflict with your beliefs

Although fewer adults in the United States are joining organized religions than ever before, many still do. For these individuals, tarot readings may contradict religious beliefs. If this is the case for you, tarot cannot help.

“[Readings] would make them feel guilty for turning to tarot cards,” says Fahrusha. “That stresses them out.”

If you’re skeptical it won’t help

Other mental health treatments, such as cognitive behavioral therapy and group therapies, have a wealth of research supporting their effectiveness.

In these forms of treatment you talk about and contextualize your behavior. This requires you to take a step back and think critically and logically about yourself.

Tarot is also a tool for critical self-reflection, but it has not been studied nearly as intensively. While it asks you to examine your motives, actions, thoughts and beliefs, it also requires a degree of confidence that the card you draw can be a source of insight on these topics.

For tarot to work, you have to “suspend disbelief” and open something that can feel surreal. Not everyone can do that.

“If you’re not open to it, it’s not going to help you,” says Sansone-Braff. “It will only make it worse because you just don’t hear what’s being said.”

It is not a substitute for therapy

Sansone-Braff stresses that some people should see a therapist after all, and Manduley agrees.

“Tarot use is not a substitute for professional mental health counseling, medication, or treatment plans,” Manduley says.

Manduley adds that tarot can worsen one’s mental state in some circumstances.

“Tarot use may be contraindicated in clients with severe and persistent mental illness with active paranoid or psychotic symptoms, as these can sometimes be exacerbated by the use of tools of such rich imagery and intense meaning, such as [those in tarot],” they say.

There is room for misinterpretation

Because the cards have multiple meanings, it is possible to misinterpret them or use them to confirm pre-existing prejudices.

Sansone-Braff has had many clients call her asking if they should get the COVID-19 vaccine. They told her they had been given the death card and felt that this was the universe telling them not to shoot.

“I said, ‘Not necessarily. Let’s draw two other cards,'” she says. “One person was given the strength and health cards. I said, “Maybe it’s telling you that if you get your COVID-19 vaccine, you won’t die and you’ll have health and strength.” We tend to interpret the cards to mean what we want them to mean.’”

Sansone-Braff also advises clients to talk to a healthcare provider about decisions such as vaccines.

And for non-medical life choices, such as career or relationship changes, Manduley suggests consulting more than one tarot reader.

“As with most things, if someone wants to go hard on the cards, get a second opinion,” they advise.

As with any treatment, tarot will help some people and not work for others. The litmus test is simple: does it make you feel better?

“If you get a reading and you don’t feel peaceful, it’s wrong,” Sansone-Braff says. “Even when I bring hard messages, they are delivered with love and to help. If it gives you fear and you can’t do something because of a card, it will only do more harm than good.”

Tarot may not be ideal for individuals with certain mental health diagnoses, especially those with symptoms such as paranoia, psychosis, or obsessive-compulsive behavior. Talk to a mental health professional to help you determine if tarot is right for you.

Some people turn to tarot to support their mental health. Tarot cards can help you initiate a conversation with a therapist, find meaning in your life circumstances, and find solutions.

There is a spiritual component to tarot cards, which may appeal to those who do not associate with organized religion. That said, tarot may go against your faith, or you may find it hard to believe.

It is also not a substitute for therapy, although it can complement it.

Since the cards have multiple meanings, it can be tempting to see what you want to see. Experts say getting a second opinion can help reduce confirmation bias.

It comes down to? If tarot cards give you more peace of mind and help you feel better, they can be a good resource. If they don’t, it’s okay to do something else.

Beth Ann Mayer is a writer from New York. In her spare time you can see her training for marathons and arguing with her son, Peter, and three furbabies.

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