Maine may be Vacationland, but it’s also home to a lot of anxious people.

An analysis published Saturday in The New York Times rated Maine’s anxiety level as the highest in the country, a whopping 21 percentage points above the national average. The analysis, based on the topics of Google searches, described Presque Isle as the “epicenter of anxiety.”

That comes as a surprise to leaders in the small Aroostook County city, but mental health experts say it’s not uncommon for people in rural areas with a lower median income to deal with more anxiety.

“That’s certainly not our town motto,” City Manager Martin Puckett said with a chuckle Monday when he was told about the designation. “It does come as a surprise that we’re the epicenter of anxiety.”

Presque Isle, dubbed the Star City, boasts a population of just over 9,500 and is a service center for the northern part of Aroostook County, the state’s center of potato farming. Located 2½ hours north of Bangor, the city has two colleges, a hospital, shopping centers and a low crime rate, according to city leaders. A $7.5 million community center is under construction, and a new public pavilion hosts farmers markets and outdoor concerts.

The analysis by Seth Stephens-Davidowitz, an economist and regular Times op-ed contributor, looked at the rise of anxiety-related Google search rates over the past eight years.


The analysis found that all New England states except Connecticut had anxiety levels 10 points or more above the national average. Oregon was the lowest anxiety state, at 26 points below the national average. Alaska, Hawaii, Nevada, Kansas and Virginia joined Oregon as the states with the lowest anxiety levels, Stephens-Davidowitz found.

He said Google searches for anxiety tend to be higher in places with lower levels of education, lower median incomes and a larger population living in rural areas. States that were deeply affected by the Great Recession saw bigger increases of anxiety. He also drew a connection between anxiety and areas with high opiate prescription rates, based on Google Correlate data that showed “panic attack” and “opiate withdrawal” were often searched together.

Brent Scobie, senior director of clinician services and analytics at Acadia Hospital in Bangor, said he can see why people are surprised by Presque Isle’s distinction as the epicenter of anxiety.

“It is surprising in the sense that we typically think of rural areas as being filled with solitude and tranquil environments and a slower pace,” he said. “We associate anxiety symptoms with busier, fast-paced urban settings.”

Scobie said he has heard from medical providers across the state – including in Aroostook County – who have seen an influx of people seeking treatment for anxiety disorders.

“Therapists in our region are feeling more and more people are feeling unsafe, uneasy and uncomfortable,” he said. “This is not something that’s specific to Aroostook County, but it’s a trend we’re seeing more in this increasingly fast-paced world.”


In general, factors such as lack of employment and financial instability can be big contributors to anxiety and have a ripple effect through the family, Scobie said. More than 20 percent of people in Presque Isle live in poverty and more than 16 percent of people are unemployed, according to U.S. Census data.

Most people who experience anxiety never reach out for help, Scobie said.

“We all experience anxiety in different ways,” he said. “It would be fascinating to learn more about the type of anxiety experience people are having up there.”

Scobie had one other theory about the high rate of Google searches about anxiety in Presque Isle: lack of access to mental health services.

“It’s an area where it can be difficult to find certain types of providers,” he said. “People who live in the northern part of the state need to resort to using online resources because they may not have an actual person they can go see, or if they are unemployed, they may not have insurance and can’t afford to see someone.”

Eastern Maine Healthcare Systems – which includes Acadia Hospital in Bangor and The Aroostook Medical Center in Presque Isle – is trying to bridge that gap in services by increasing the use of “telemedicine.” It allows patients in Presque Isle and other rural parts of the state to “meet” with doctors via a video conference no matter where the doctor is located, Scobie said.


Emily Smith, chairwoman of the Presque Isle City Council and a sixth-generation farmer in Aroostook County, wonders if the area’s agricultural focus might contribute to higher anxiety. After all, the livelihood of many farmers depends on Mother Nature, over which they have no control, she said.

Still, Smith was surprised to hear of the high anxiety levels given that “Presque Isle is laid back.”

“There’s no stress here,” she said. “But I’m sure it’s like (many) parts of the country. People are working hard and struggling to get by or keep up.”


Comments are no longer available on this story