Anchorage Daily News

Community took back mental health by redefining needs

Alan Boraas

(05/14/10 22:36:21)

Tucked away on the Kenai Peninsula's back roads of Cohoe is a therapeutic eco-community called Ionia. Recently several hundred visitors took advantage of a Kenai Resilience open house at Ionia to learn about sustainable living. I was among them.

The core of the Ionia enclave, now numbering about 50 full-time residents, came from Boston, arriving on the Peninsula in 1987. The four original families had two things in common: mental health problems and a sense that the world was just as crazy as they were.

They were diagnosed with schizophrenia, paranoia or depression and faced a lifetime taking mind- numbing psychotropic drugs generously prescribed by a therapy industry with no hope of getting better. In the 1970s, in order to somehow take control of their lives, they formed a self-help community within a Boston neighborhood. But by 1983, according to a 1999 ADN article by Jon Little, they were run out by fearful, small-minded neighbors. Their subsequent journey took them to California and Seattle but neither afforded them a place where they could reinstitute sanity according to age-old principles.

And so they did what a lot of us have done for various reasons all having to do with redefining self within a context of a place not yet corrupted by burgeoning population densities and a ridged social order: They came to Alaska. In Anchorage, according to Little, they were helped by Aron Wolf, a psychiatrist who offered them hope, not drugs. Go to the Kenai Peninsula, he advised, and cure yourselves.

So they bought 160 acres off North Cohoe Loop and built what amounts to a modern version of a medieval Scandinavian community (minus the beef) based on three principles.

First, they eat a natural diet devoid of processed foods. That means no fast food, and nothing that comes in a box. A macrobiotic diet, the leaders perceived, was a first step toward sanity.

Most Ionians are vegetarians, but some also eat fish. Thanks to clever grant writing for equipment and lots of hard work, they grow a significant amount of what they eat. In addition to vegetables, they have successfully grown barley (a local brewery plans to purchase some for a northern beer) and are experimenting with sub-arctic varieties of wheat. They harvest seaweed, berries and other natural plants. What they can't grow they purchase in bulk from natural farms Outside.

The second part of their program is to live thoughtfully and sustainably. They heat with efficient wood heat systems and are experimenting with wind and solar energy. They build beautiful log structures but are investigating building with clay- coated straw bales, essentially a form of traditional wattle and daub, as a more efficient form of insulation. They make a lot of their own clothes described by Little as skateboarder- chic. They reject all television and blather radio but have an impressive library of movies and use computers for creativity and the Internet for information. When they need to go to Soldotna, a half-hour away, they car-pool in one of the community vans. Their technology is well-thought-out: Nothing is done without a good reason.

Third, the Ionia people live in a mutually supportive environment, the ultimate form of therapy. Mornings are spent in discussions that can last hours and then they work in groups on the projects of the season. Kids laugh and play and a third generation is now growing up. Many travel the world.

At the Kenai Resilience tour, the guide stressed the group is not a cult; people move in and out at will. Most, perhaps all, are spiritual without advocating any particular religion. Ionia is not a true commune but a group that lives by mutually agreed upon principles -- although the residents share a lot of resources. How novel.

The people of Ionia have transformed themselves into a model of what a northern society can return to in the 21st century. Their mental health issues were really an expression of the schizophrenia, paranoia and depression of modernity fighting wars for no reason, creating needs for things no one really needs, fouling the environment, eating junk and producing a frenzied lifestyle of perpetual exhaustion and anxiety. They have stopped the craziness in themselves by redefining what is good, meaningful and healthy and in doing so exposed the craziness of the modern society. The rest of us can learn from their bold experiment.

Alan Boraas is professor of anthropology at Kenai Peninsula College.


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