In a piece for the New York Times this week, opinion writer Seth Stephens-Davidowitz describes Presque Isle as the country’s “epicenter of anxiety.”
The finding is based on Google searches for the word “anxiety” and related terms, such as “anxiety help” and “anxiety symptoms.” Apparently, Americans are punching those terms into Google more this year than in any other year since the company started tracking searches in 2004.
People in Presque Isle appear to be the most worried, economist Stephens-Davidowitz wrote, explaining that “Google searches for anxiety tend to be higher in places with lower levels of education, lower median incomes and a larger part of the population living in rural areas.” Fewer than 20 percent of adults in Presque Isle hold a bachelor’s degree, he noted.
But are they really more anxiety-prone than anyone else? I checked out Google’s search data to get a better idea.
Since 2004, searches about anxiety have been more popular in Maine than in any other state (Rhode Island and West Virginia are second and third, respectively). If you drill down one more level, you see that Presque Isle tops the list of Maine metropolitan areas for anxiety-related searches.
Metropolitan in the statistical sense, at least. Maine has only three metro areas, as defined by the federal government for statistical purposes, such as Census counts. So Presque Isle is really a stand in for all of Aroostook County in this analysis.
But Mainers up north are Googling anxiety roughly twice as much as their counterparts in the rest of Maine. Economic stress sound like a plausible explanation for that, though I’d be curious to see the search rates for Washington County. Unfortunately it’s lumped into the Bangor statistical area.
You can also see search rates by city, rather than metro area. Using that view, Presque Isle drops off the top 10 list entirely. Instead, Saco ranks number one, followed by Brunswick and Falmouth.
That seems to upend the theory about economic stress fueling anxiety-related searches, since those cities are relatively wealthy compared to the rest of Maine. None of the top cities is located in Aroostook County.
But Stephens-Davidowitz makes an interesting case that another major factor is contributing to anxiety — opiate withdrawal.
Many people withdrawing from opiates, such as heroin, experience anxiety, which can lead to panic attacks. Stephens-Davidowitz discovered that places with high rates of both opiate prescriptions and search rates for opiate withdrawal also had high search rates for panic attacks.
In Maine, the term “panic attack” saw a big rise in search frequency over the last decade.
It’s a leap to assume that’s anything more than a correlation, but he could be on to something. Maine topped the nation in 2012 for prescribing of a commonly abused type of opioid painkiller. While broad efforts to better manage prescribing practices have led to improvements since then, opioid abuse was surging during the decade leading up to 2012. That lines up with all the Google searches in Maine related to anxiety.
Also, anxiety (along with depression) is most prevalent among Maine adults aged 26 to 35.
That’s basically the same age group in which substance abuse treatment admissions for heroin and morphine are most common.
Still, Aroostook County doesn’t stand out when it comes to various measurements of opioid abuse, including overdose deaths and prescribing rates for prescription painkillers. So I’m not convinced Stephens-Davidowitz’s correlation holds for Presque Isle and the surrounding areas. Opioid abuse is most certainly a problem up north, but we often hear more about methamphetamine in that part of the state.
Anxiety also happens to be a side effect of meth withdrawal.
Brent Scobie, senior director of clinician services and analytics at Acadia Hospital in Bangor, offered another theory about the search rates for anxiety up north. He suspects difficulty accessing mental health providers could be behind it, he told the Portland Press Herald.
“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,” he told the paper.
Regardless, I hope all that Googling about anxiety is helping Mainers to find their way to treatment.