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Is quiet Presque Isle, Maine, the most anxious place in America?

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The rising sun cast a glow over Presque Isle, Maine. An economist calls the town one of the nation’s most anxious.Jessica Rinaldi

PRESQUE ISLE, Maine — Four hundred miles north of Boston, past wilderness where townships have numbers for names, there is a quiet place where not much ever happens. It's not the kind of place you would expect to be declared the nation's "epicenter of anxiety."

But that is what a Harvard-educated economist, Seth Stephens-Davidowitz, deduced when he analyzed a transcontinental lode of anxiety-related Google searches.

The survey found that Maine is the most anxious state in the nation — with anxiety levels 21 percent above the national average — and that isolated Presque Isle is the most anxious place in the state.


"There is increasing evidence that searches on a health condition highly correlate with the number of people suffering from that condition," wrote Stephens-Davidowitz, who studied search terms such as "anxiety help," "anxious," and "anxiety symptoms.''

If Presque Isle's anxiety can be measured by dumbfounded stares by people along Main Street, then the economist is on to something.

"Who pinned that on us, an outsider?" snorted Dick Graves, a 74-year-old optometrist, when told about the survey.

"I don't feel that anxious, I guess," said 35-year-old Chris Morton, a musician who peddles guitars inside King Morton's Hall of Music. "But there's always small things like, 'What do I want for supper?' "

"Do I worry? No, life's good," barber Dwight Helstrom, 69, said near closing time. "And this is the first time I've sat down since 6:30 in the morning."

Despite the disbelief along much of Main Street, some in Presque Isle — a 9,500-person "metropolis" of Aroostook County known as the capital of potato country — said the ranking has merit.

Bert Cloukey, a 74-year-old who takes anxiety medication, blamed too much tough weather and too little wealth. "Our winter is just starting," Cloukey said. "It costs us so much to live, and people get depressed because they don't have money to buy fuel or provide the clothes that they need."


Stephens-Davidowitz, whose study was published in August as a New York Times opinion piece, also said searches for anxiety tend to rise in rural areas with lower income and less education. He could not be reached for comment.

On the surface, the low-income, less-education criteria apply to Presque Isle, where less than 20 percent of residents have a bachelor's degree, 21 percent live in poverty, and median household income was $36,706 in 2014, nearly one-third below the national figure of $53,482.

The economist also argued that recessions cause anxiety and that panic attacks associated with opioid withdrawal can trigger Google searches. Maine has been hard-hit by the opioid epidemic, and methamphetamine labs have been a particular problem in Aroostook County. Considering that the nearest large hospital is three hours away in Bangor, the Internet sometimes serves as a surrogate clinician, health workers said.

Barber Dwight Helstrom gave Willis Brown a haircut inside his Presque Isle shop.Jessica Rinaldi

David Prescott, a psychologist who directs health care studies at Husson University in Bangor, said the volume of anxiety searches makes "you worry that they don't have anybody else to ask."

But does scouring the Internet for advice mean someone is ridden by anxiety? Raymond Rice, president of University of Maine Presque Isle, thinks such searches also indicate something else — resourcefulness.

"The Internet is such a source of support for people who don't have a higher education degree," Rice said. The findings, he added, are "a bit misleading because it points to the fact that in Aroostook County, what they pride themselves on is self-reliance. They will look for answers themselves."


Still, Rice said, anxiety is a thread in the fabric of life here.

"Academic and mental health support for anxiety is pretty common with our students," many of whom are the first in their families to attend college, Rice said.

Telepsychiatry services — sessions conducted with providers from as far away as Arizona — are available at The Aroostook Medical Center in Presque Isle. Overall, however, the county's mental health needs are not well served, said Brent Scobie, senior director of clinical services at Acadia Hospital, a Bangor facility that belongs to the same health system.

Part of the challenge, Scobie said, is recruiting therapists to move to such a remote area. "It can be a very lengthy process to find a therapist," Scobie said.

There are fewer family farms in the area now; fewer acres are being harvested by the agribusinesses that replaced them; and the county — larger in area than Rhode Island and Connecticut combined — still hasn't recovered from the closing of Loring Air Force Base, a Cold War mainstay, in 1994.

"Population is declining all the time, and that might make for a little more anxiety," said Tom Chasse, who owns a sporting goods store on Main Street.

"There's nothing here for our youth," added Scott Haggerty, a customer. "It's a good place to raise children, but it's hard to keep them."


However, City Manager Martin Puckett insisted that tiny Presque Isle is peppered with positives. An average of 18,000 vehicles — nearly double the population — pass through town every day, Puckett said. A $7.5 million community center opened recently. It's a place where high schoolers still take a three-week break to help with the harvest.

Graves, the downtown optometrist, didn't take kindly to the "epicenter of anxiety" label, but he also gave the idea a thoughtful scrub. Together with a lifelong friend — Milford "Miff" Dow, a 71-year-old retired potato farmer — they ran through possible reasons during a leisurely afternoon chat.

Graves cited the exodus of young people. He mentioned the need for good jobs. And then this: "We worry that dope is coming up from down south," Graves said.

"What else is there, Miff?" the optometrist asked. The two of them — with more than 140 years combined in Presque Isle — paused and pondered for several long, quiet seconds.

"I don't know," Dow finally answered. "A bad potato?"

Map: Where is Presque Isle?

Brian MacQuarrie can be reached at