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 entirely responsible for the situation I was in,” Hinson recalls. “One thing I found to be incredibly helpful was using tarot as a way for me to more objectively look at my situation. It gave me some hope.”
Tinson had been reading tarot cards for more than a decade. When things got tough, they helped her make sense of her situation.
In addition to reading cards every day, she continued to see a therapist once per week and take medication for depression and anxiety. Now that she’s doing better, she still pulls cards about once per week.
Tinson isn’t alone in seeking solace in tarot.
And tarot card readers have (at least anecdotally) reported seeing an uptick in business during the pandemic as people grapple with uncertainty.
“People were looking for the bigger messages,” says Fahrusha, who goes by a single name. She’s worked as a tarot card reader for more than 35 years.
Tarot may be becoming more mainstream, but not everyone is familiar with the practice. Though its historical origins aren’t certain, tarot cards likely emerged in the 14th century, brought to Western Europe from Turkey.
“Tarot… is a deck of cards with culturally derived meanings that you can use for spirituality, art, and storytelling reasons,” says trauma-focused therapist Aida Manduley, LCSW, who uses they/them pronouns.
Manduley sometimes pulls cards for clients in sessions and says it’s a helpful tool. Still, they admit it isn’t 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 troubled times.
More than a quarter of U.S. 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 better understand themselves.
“Sometimes, when people are anxious and depressed, it’s a sign that their soul needs nurturing,” says Sansone-Braff. “Tarot connects deeply with the soul. It’s a really good vortex for opening the subconscious mind and collective unconscious mind… and for figuring out what’s going on below the surface.”
It can complement therapy
“Tarot isn’t a one-size-fits-all cure-all for your mental health — but for me, it’s a big part of my mental hygiene regimen,” Hinson says.
Sansone-Braff sees clients who are taking similar approaches.
For example, she would refer a client with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) to a therapist. Still, she says she often can play a role in helping the person, too.
“I can help them deal with some of the lessons they may have learned [in therapy],” Sansone-Braff says.
Tarot can open dialogue
Sometimes, Manduley’s clients have trouble opening 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 than mine, that’s a perfect moment for us to talk about how the same situation can bring about different stories and interpretations,” they say. “[The death card] doesn’t have to be a negative thing, and we can use that to talk about life changes.”
This dialogue can help Manduley talk with clients about solutions. For example, perhaps the person will pull out a tower card next, which symbolizes abrupt change.
“It may open the door for you to think about changing a relationship, and maybe you weren’t giving yourself permission to think about that before,” Manduley says.
It’s getting more representative
Manduley says that some of the older tarot card decks play into gender and class stereotypes.
“In a lot of traditional decks, tarot cards are gendered and boxed into masculine and feminine,” they say. “There is an inherent hierarchy, like kings and queens, which are monarchy.”
But Manduley notes that some artists, like Emily Lubanko, Margaret Trauth (aka Egypt Urnash), and Fyodor Pavlov, are coming out with decks that buck these traditional notions. This may help people find more inclusive insight into their mental health concerns.
“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 pursuing tarot in your personal practice.
It might go against your beliefs
Though fewer adults in the United States affiliate with 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 may not help.
“[Readings] would cause them to feel guilt for turning to tarot cards,” Fahrusha says. “That will cause them stress.”
If you’re skeptical, it won’t help
In these forms of treatment, you talk about and contextualize behaviors. This requires you to take a step back and think critically and logically about yourself.
Tarot is a tool for critical self-reflection as well, but it hasn’t been studied nearly as intensely. While it asks you to examine your motives, actions, thoughts, and beliefs, it also requires a degree of faith that the card you’re pulling can be a source of insight about these topics.
For tarot to work, you have to “suspend disbelief” and open up something that may feel surreal. Not everyone can do that.
“If you aren’t open to it, it’s not going to help you,” says Sansone-Braff. “It’s only going to make it worse, because you’re just not going to hear anything that’s being said.”
It’s not a replacement for therapy
Sansone-Braff stresses that some individuals should still see a therapist, and Manduley agrees.
“Using tarot is not a replacement for professional guidance for mental health, medication, or treatment plans,” Manduley says.
Manduley adds that in some circumstances, tarot could make a person’s mental condition worse.
“Use of tarot could be contraindicated with clients who have severe and persistent mental illness that has active paranoid or psychotic symptoms, as those can sometimes get exacerbated by the use of tools with such rich imagery and intense meaning, such as [those in tarot],” they say.
There’s room for misinterpretation
Because the cards have multiple meanings, it’s possible to misinterpret them or use them to confirm pre-existing biases.
Sansone-Braff has had many clients calling her, asking if they should get the COVID-19 vaccine. They told her they got the death card and felt this was the universe telling them not to get the shot.
“I said, ‘Not necessarily. Let’s pull two other cards,’” she says. “One person got the strength and health cards. I said, ‘Maybe it’s telling you if you get your COVID-19 vaccine, you won’t die and will have health and strength.’ We tend to interpret the cards to mean what we want them to mean.’”
Sansone-Braff also advises clients to speak with a healthcare professional about decisions like vaccines.
And for nonmedical 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 if I deliver hard messages, they are delivered with love and to help. If it’s causing you anxiety and you can’t do something because of a card, then it’s only going to do more harm than good.”
Tarot may not be ideal for individuals with certain mental health diagnoses, especially those including symptoms like paranoia, psychosis, or obsessive-compulsive behaviors. Speak with a mental health professional to help you determine whether tarot is appropriate for you.
Some people are turning to tarot to help support their mental health. Tarot cards may help you spark a conversation with a therapist, find meaning in your life circumstances, and identify solutions.
There is a spiritual component to tarot cards, which may appeal to those who don’t associate with organized religion. That said, tarot may go against your faith, or you may find it hard to believe.
It’s also not a replacement for therapy, though it can complement it.
Because the cards have multiple meanings, it can be tempting to see what you want to see. Experts say that getting a second opinion can help alleviate confirmation bias.
The bottom line? If tarot cards make you feel more at peace and help you feel better, they could be a good resource. If they don’t, it’s OK to move on to something else.
Beth Ann Mayer is a New York-based writer. In her spare time, you can find her training for marathons and wrangling her son, Peter, and three furbabies.