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Tarot therapy: Why some believe the cards can help mental health

A social worker has developed a big following on social media for using tarot cards to get people to understand what's going on in their lives.
Tarot Cards
Tarot cards can have deeply spiritual meanings for some people. Getty Images
/ Source: TODAY

The quest for a healthy mind is leading some people to turn to an unusual tool: a deck of tarot cards.

They seem magical and mystical, but to Jessica Dore, they’re also a means to help others explore what’s going on in their lives.

Dore, who describes herself as social worker who uses tarot cards to talk about mental health, has a devoted audience on social media, including more than 100,000 followers on Twitter where she posts a daily card and its possible meaning.

She also offers individual tarot sessions, avoiding the term “readings” because she believes it portrays her clients as passive rather than active participants.

“What I do is not therapy, but I do think there are therapeutic aspects to it, if therapeutic means that it’s healing, that it’s helping people function better,” Dore, 33, who lives in Philadelphia, told TODAY.

“So many people don’t have access to therapy, so let’s try to get creative with using something that’s accessible, affordable and you can do a lot of personal work with. I don’t see any downside to that.”

Dore said she has a master’s degree in social work and has studied psychology, behavior and mental health for the past decade.

Here’s how she described her sessions:

How do you make the connection between tarot and mental health?

Dore: Traditionally, you go to a tarot reader with a question, they pull the cards and they tell you your fortune. I don’t do that. I’m much more interested in using cards as tools to have a conversation with people to open up new perspectives, to use the cards to ask questions.

Most of the individual sessions I do are over Skype. I’ll ask the person in the beginning about what inspired them to book a session with me. That gives me a sense of how to focus rather than just turning the cards over and saying random things.

I pull 10 cards, turn them over and send a picture of the spread to the person and we talk about them.

There are so many ways to interpret them so you want to do it in a way that’s relevant to the person and their life. It’s very collaborative — that’s a big distinction between the way I use cards and the way traditional tarot reading is done.

A lot of it is me using a card to ask the person a question and help them come up with their own interpretation: “What comes up for you when you see this image or when you hear these ideas?”

What’s special about tarot cards?

Dore: First of all, they’re something different and people like the uniqueness of it. It’s different than going in to see a therapist.

The cards themselves, depending on which deck you use, have all of these symbols and archetypes in them. These are things that show up in Disney movies, folk tales, fairy tales — there’s this deep resonance for people.

A lot of what shows up in the cards that just brings something up for you. You might not know what the card means but it’s almost like the Rorschach ink blot test. What are you seeing here? What’s this bringing up for you?

It’s another way to get people to come out of their rigid narrative, and people enjoy that, along with the mystical, magical element of it. We don’t necessarily use it in that way, but it’s compelling for people and it’s interesting and they feel like they’re doing something special.

How can cards drawn at random have relevance to someone’s life?

Dore: When you ask why people like this, I think the randomness is the magical element of it. When you pull tarot cards, people often say, ‘It’s so crazy how relevant this is to my life.’

Because the cards are so rich with symbols and archetypes that are common human experiences, it’s almost hard for them not to resonate with you in some way.

Can working with the cards be therapeutic?

Dore: I do think it can be therapeutic.

A lot of the work is helping people understand simple concepts like: When there are feelings you’re not willing to feel, that’s a lot of how people get stuck.

You can use tarot cards to help people understand by showing them images and helping them explore the ways those things are happening in their own lives.

That can help people understand themselves in a new way, which is therapeutic, and understand how they make the decisions that they make and why they’re behaving the way they are. What is driven by avoidance or anxiety?

One of the things that’s really powerful is when you’re feeling alone in something you’re going through and you pull a tarot card and you Google the card to find some of the meanings of it, you may find these are so relevant to your life. It makes you feel less alone.

It’s almost like when you read a book and the character is going through something that you’re going through and you feel really seen and not so alone. Tarot sort of does that same thing.

What do you say to skeptics who associate this with fortune telling?

Dore: I totally understand that — we have associations with things and that’s how our brains work.

But it’s good to consider that things might not be exactly what you associate them with and there are other ways of understanding things. Tarot cards are pieces of paper with images on them to some people. To others, they have deeply spiritual meanings. And to some, they’re pieces of paper with images on them that you can use to better understand yourself. My work is geared toward the latter.

It’s OK for there to be new ways of using a tool that fits the times we’re in.

This interview was edited and condensed for clarity.