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Mental Health on TV


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#1

tobia

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Posted Sep 27, 2004 @ 5:08 PM

Touchy subject, how does TV deal with these things?
My insights:
The season premerie of Joan of Arcadia had me thinking about how mental illness is protrayed on TV. They had Joan (not crazy but possibly suffering from Lyme induced hallucinations) and then another character's wife (an obvisiou schizophrenic). The line at the end was "Crazy is destruction" and was ment to contrast belief from insanity. This is something the show really wrested with all of last season as they really felt the need to drive home the point that this schizophrenic, harmful behavoir really does exist.

On CSI, the characters seem to have various addictions (Sarah-possibly alcohol, Warrick-gambling), etc. One thing that sort of bothered me about the Sarah stroyline was that everyone really seemed too ready to make the jump to alcoholism so quickly. It was an "if you drink, you must be an alcoholic" set-up and it sort of bugged.
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#2

kathyk2

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Posted Sep 27, 2004 @ 8:03 PM

It seems to me that people with mental illness fall into two categories on tv. They are either serial killers or homeless people. Law and Order I'm looking at you.
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#3

Alyna Kuirt

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Posted Sep 27, 2004 @ 8:10 PM

The only way it's honestly portrayed?

Those "No Stigma" commercials. "No one tells you to just snap out of pneumonia. It's not because you're weak, it's because you're sick."
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#4

Mr. Excitement

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Posted Sep 27, 2004 @ 8:10 PM

tobia writes:

On CSI, the characters seem to have various addictions (Sarah-possibly alcohol, Warrick-gambling), etc. One thing that sort of bothered me about the Sarah stroyline was that everyone really seemed too ready to make the jump to alcoholism so quickly. It was an "if you drink, you must be an alcoholic" set-up and it sort of bugged.



Yeah, you'd think that the writing staff (including former heroin addict Jerry Stahl) would have treated it with more subtlety.

CSI being crap notwithstanding, addiction is the sort of story that "plot-driven" shows aren't necessarily well-equipped to handle. The "soapy" NYPD Blue, for example, did a creditable job in its second season comparing and contrasting the Sipowicz and Russell characters.

Both were alcoholics, but Sipowicz was created as a severely depressive binge drinker with a very low tolerance for alcohol in contrast with Russell, a "high-functioning" alcoholic who was able to keep her drinking private but whose pathology was no less severe (in fact, Sipowicz was the only person in her life who was able to determine her problem, in part because he was able to discern a familiar pattern in her "bathroom breaks").

Edited by Mr. Excitement, Sep 27, 2004 @ 8:10 PM.

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#5

clumsy maniac

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Posted Sep 27, 2004 @ 8:19 PM

I really didn't like how Marissa's suicide attempt was handled on the O.C. The fact she neede to be rescued from a 'crazy asylum' was, in my opinion, really distasteful, and insulting.
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#6

depthfunction

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Posted Sep 27, 2004 @ 8:36 PM

The line at the end was "Crazy is destruction"

I suppose I shouldn't argue with God, but I disagreed with that blanket assessment. One does not have to look very far to find many artists, writers, and musicians who have been diagnosed, or are now thought to have suffered from one mental illness or another. Often, being "crazy" is necessary for one to break free of the socially-constructed "reality" that all of us live in and that defines how we act and think. Crazy can be creation just as much as destruction, and sometimes the destruction is necessary before true creation can begin.

Edited by depthfunction, Sep 27, 2004 @ 8:36 PM.

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#7

Fabrisse

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Posted Sep 27, 2004 @ 9:01 PM

As someone who has gone through suicidal depression and worked a suicide hotline, I loathe and despise the way suicide attempts are treated on television. From people who are suicidal don't talk about it (they do) to people who commit suicide always leave a note (the statistics back in my day were 15% left a note. They assume that everyone knows that they have problems, so it doesn't occur to them to write one.).

My favorite: Talking about your bad day, life, choice, past will help the suicidal person put it all in perspective and they won't go through with it.

I know that my own mental illness changes the way people treat me, but I also figure that if I don't tell people things could be worse.
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#8

kitschwitch

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Posted Sep 27, 2004 @ 9:41 PM

Good Topic!

First off - I have Type II Bipolar and ADD, so I know my way around the mental health care system and mental health care drugs.

Second - I love Law & Order: All 3 flavors. But it drives me crazy (er, maybe a poor choice of words...) how every person with a mental illness is depicted as being totally out of control. Yes, I know that there are people with mental health problems that commit terrible crimes but the show would lead you to think that mental illness = mass murderer. It seems the murderers on that show are always taking the same drugs I am taking - it is rather demoralizing and depressing. I would love it if for once if the mentally ill person didn't do it and the sane person did.

I will give L & O credit, however, for keeping the many ethical and legal aspects of mental health issues in the public eye. I think they have the most sympathetic portrayals on tv.

And I love the character played by J.K. Simmons. (Dr. Emil Skola?) B.D. Wong's doc also rocks. Either one of those guys could be my therapist any day. Dr. Olivet? I'm just not feeling the love.

I also like the schizophrenic storyline on Cold Case.
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#9

shimi

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Posted Sep 28, 2004 @ 12:25 AM

I don't like how mental illness can be treated as a facile plot device on a lot of soaps. As in anytime they feel backed into a corner by their inept plotting, writers pack characters off for a nice stay in the local sanitorium. Or the one in Switzerland. You know, the *one*. ( Because there never seem to be any others.)
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#10

Dani257

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Posted Sep 28, 2004 @ 12:49 AM

I thought Once and Again handled mental illness pretty well. The character Aaron was, I'm guessing, schizophrenic. I don't think they ever said, specifically. I don't have any personal experience, but from what I could tell, they seemed to treat his character with respect, without glossing over his illness.
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#11

foultemptress

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Posted Sep 28, 2004 @ 9:21 AM

It's always schizophrenia or bipolar manic depression on t.v., no one ever just has plain old depression. If they do, it's because of the ending of a relationship and they get over it in one episode. The closest I remember seeing on a sitcom was Roseanne, when Darlene went through her "wearing black and moping in her room" stage, it bugged me because the way it was written made her appear to clearly be depressed, yet they blew it off as teen angst and rode it out. Thank God my Mom didn't treat my early-teen depression the same way.
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#12

Fabrisse

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Posted Sep 28, 2004 @ 9:43 AM

Excellent point. The fact is long-term (and non-situational) depression is difficult to dramatize. I would like to see it addressed well over a long term in some series, but I don't see it as likely.
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#13

WrenLet

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Posted Sep 28, 2004 @ 10:44 AM

I'm frequently frustrated by the inconsistent way in which mental illness is portrayed. If a character is diagnosed with [insert illness here], and it isn't integral to the plot, it seems that they suddenly cease to exhibit any characteristics associated with said illness, and it isn't brought up again until it's convenient.

Second - I love Law & Order: All 3 flavors. But it drives me crazy (er, maybe a poor choice of words...) how every person with a mental illness is depicted as being totally out of control. Yes, I know that there are people with mental health problems that commit terrible crimes but the show would lead you to think that mental illness = mass murderer. It seems the murderers on that show are always taking the same drugs I am taking - it is rather demoralizing and depressing. I would love it if for once if the mentally ill person didn't do it and the sane person did.


It seems to me that you're referring mainly to the suspects each week. I agree that it sometimes seems unbalanced. In all fairness to L&O, though, it is a crime show; characters have to commit crimes in order to have any reason to be there, mentally ill or not. The law-abiding portion of the population doesn't have much of a place there. Even for the witnesses, it isn't really integral to the story unless it is severe enough to limit their credibility or something along those lines. I have to agree, though, that the majority of the times that they use a mentally ill person as a suspect, that person is ultimately revealed to have committed the crime.

Edited by WrenLet, Sep 28, 2004 @ 10:45 AM.

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#14

Justin Cognito

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Posted Sep 28, 2004 @ 10:47 AM

WORD about Law and Order. I especially hated this one episode of Criminal Intent that treated a guy with Asperger's Syndrome like he had bargain-basement sociopathy. Y'know, just because I can't socially interact with other people at the level of an average person my age, doesn't mean that I see them just as objects that can be manipulated.
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#15

Mr. Excitement

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Posted Sep 28, 2004 @ 11:02 AM

Fabrisse writes:

Excellent point. The fact is long-term (and non-situational) depression is difficult to dramatize. I would like to see it addressed well over a long term in some series, but I don't see it as likely.



I disagree; Tony's struggles with depression on The Sopranos (inflected by stress, family issues and ennui) have been handled very well.
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#16

quotidian

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Posted Sep 28, 2004 @ 11:11 AM

I agree, Mr. Excitement, but I just wish the show hadn't dropped the ball on the therapy storyline. I know that a gazillion other factors could be/were in play regarding the storyline itself, but I think the relationship between Tony and Melfi is one of the most interesting and welldone presentations of the modern therapist/client relationship, as well as how the relationship itself affects depression. It's one of the things I miss most about the first two seasons of the show.

(As long as we're talking about mental health, we could open up a whole can of worms about the depiction of shrinks on television too. Cough. Or not.)

Edited by quotidian, Sep 28, 2004 @ 11:42 AM.

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#17

shimi

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Posted Sep 28, 2004 @ 3:08 PM

Season Six of Buffy: The Vampire Slayer dealt with the fallout of the heroine's depression pretty all season-long and into the next with mixed results and to mixed reactions. I like it and thought it was handled fairly well within the bounds of the genre even when it was frequently difficult to watch.A lot of TWoPpers really hated on that season for lots of reasons but I thought I'd put it out there as an example of a season-long SL about depression.
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#18

greendog78

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Posted Sep 28, 2004 @ 6:53 PM

WORD about Law and Order. I especially hated this one episode of Criminal Intent that treated a guy with Asperger's Syndrome like he had bargain-basement sociopathy. Y'know, just because I can't socially interact with other people at the level of an average person my age, doesn't mean that I see them just as objects that can be manipulated.


Double Word. My cousin has Asperger's Syndrome; he's never even come close to doing the things described in that episode. In fact that episode made me so angry I haven't watched Law and Order CI since.
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#19

miasadie

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Posted Sep 28, 2004 @ 7:13 PM

Great Topic! Thank you, I have been interested in this topic for some time. If anyone is interested this link is an excellent article/newscast I heard on NPR adressing mental health and the media it references the drama ER.

http://www.lcmedia.com/mind279.htm

I felt that Stacy J's firing (on The Apprentice) because of irresponsible claims of crazy, "possibly clinical" behavior, was reprehensible. I would like to hear what a professional mental health care worker would have to say.
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#20

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Posted Sep 28, 2004 @ 7:42 PM

One does not have to look very far to find many artists, writers, and musicians who have been diagnosed, or are now thought to have suffered from one mental illness or another. Often, being "crazy" is necessary for one to break free of the socially-constructed "reality" that all of us live in and that defines how we act and think. Crazy can be creation just as much as destruction, and sometimes the destruction is necessary before true creation can begin.


I am a musician, depthfunction, and far too many people use this logic to label me as eccentric, without knowing me at all. This stereotype is the product of the Romantic movement, but it's not possible to romanticize mental illness. For every Beethoven, Satie or Partch there's a Bach, Messiaen or Copland. (I think Highlander actually had some dialogue to that effect.) Crazy can happen to anyone, whether the job is crazy-making or not. Or, to paraphrase the ads, nobody tells you that you're so diabetic when they hear you work for Hershey's.
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#21

echopapa

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Posted Sep 28, 2004 @ 7:57 PM

(As long as we're talking about mental health, we could open up a whole can of worms about the depiction of shrinks on television too. Cough. Or not.)


I'd be willing to bet that the depiction of more than one TV shrink has been affected by the work of a certain litigious group founded by a certain science-fiction writer.

TV mental illness rarely carries the kind of gallows humor found among mental patients in real life, for fear of offending someone. (It was the dark comedy of an institution that lead one of its former patients to write the song "They're Coming To Take Me Away, Ha-Haa".)
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#22

miasadie

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Posted Sep 28, 2004 @ 8:03 PM

TV mental illness rarely carries the kind of gallows humor found among mental patients in real life, for fear of offending someone.


MASH did a pretty good job, haven't seen any other show come close to it.
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#23

Fabrisse

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Posted Sep 28, 2004 @ 9:53 PM

Oddly enough, I just re-saw an episode of Wiseguy (Yea, shows on DVD) set in a mental hospital. Lots of gallows humor, but, of course, the leading character is there by mistake and it all gets wrapped up in 48 minutes. At least I got the sense they were trying.
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#24

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Posted Sep 28, 2004 @ 10:13 PM

I don't think I've ever seen a decent portrayal of an eating disorder on tv. Lots have brought them up, but they're pretty much always treated as something simplistic and "dealt with" within an episode. The least bad one I can think of was on 90210 when the characters were seniors in high school and Kelly spent an episode or two not eating and abusing diet pills. At least they brought it up again a couple weeks later and mentioned she was in an eating disorder support group, acknowledging that the one trip to the ER wasn't the end. Maybe eating disorders should actually join major depression in the "too hard to do well on tv, so we just don't try" category.
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#25

Alyna Kuirt

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Posted Sep 28, 2004 @ 11:46 PM

Worst, worst, WORST portrayal of an eating disorder?

Lizzie McGuire, hands down. (Yes, I once watched that crap. Shut up.) Miranda skips lunch. Just lunch! She then faints a few hours later, supposedly due to the act of skipping lunch. The character isn't a weak one--they were deliberately making it be that her skipping lunch made her "nearly" faint.

What the fuck?!!! Okay, first of all, plenty of people can go a day without food and not faint. Second of all.... The fuck????
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#26

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Posted Sep 29, 2004 @ 12:17 AM

It's always schizophrenia or bipolar manic depression on t.v., no one ever just has plain old depression.


Once and Again actually did have a character who was severely depressed, Karen, Rick's ex-wife and Jessie and Eli's mother. Jessie also had an eating disorder and spent part of the second and all of the third season in therapy. I really liked how they did both of those because it wasn't all anvilicious. In other words, one day Jessie didn't just, say, skip lunch and suddenly she was anorexic. They showed her doing things like skipping meals and/or avoiding eating for weeks or months before it was made an explicit issue, but they also didn't hammer us over the head with those moments. With both Karen and Jessie they did a good job of having the issues seem to flow out of their characters and circumstances, as opposed to just shoving them randomly into the plot for false drama. And then ABC cancelled the show, the bastards.

Personally I hate hate hate how they portray bipolar characters. They always equate manic with "happy" and depressed with "sad." A manic person isn't just out having a good time. Part of the whole problem is that it's out of your control, and manic people are often paranoid, sometimes even delusional. At the risk of getting way too personal, I am bipolar, and so is my younger brother, and it just really pisses me off how when bipolar characters aren't violent, wacked-out killers on like on Law and Order, the illness gets romanticized into an illness of artists who need to be manic to express themselves blah, blah, blah. It's a mental illness, people. For the most part, it sucks.
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#27

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Posted Sep 29, 2004 @ 12:37 AM

Once and Again handled the eating disorder storyline fairly well. The character Jessie goes through a reasonably long arc with the problem. At the beginning of it, she just mentions not being hungry when it's mealtime. This progresses over several episodes to where she's pretending to eat (grabbing slices of pizza and hiding them in her room) and there is a scene at school where she gets dizzy, but this is definitely not a "skipped one meal and passed out" situation. She ends up going to therapy for essentially the rest of the season, and I thought the therapy sessions were handled well. The therapist helps her establish some beginning goals re eating and they talk about the issues that have contributed to the eating disorder (escalated conflict between her divorced parents, living in a new situation, normal teen angst, etc.) and that she's using this behavior (not eating) as the one way she can exercise control in her life. The problem was treated in depth and not at all done in a superficial or "very special episode" way.

In the final year of the series, Jessie's mother Karen had a bout of depression. That storyline was somewhat rushed, but I blame that on the fact that the writers knew they were going to get axed any second. Karen was a control freak from the beginning of the series, who was still fixated on her ex-husband even though they'd been divorced for three years, and she had problems dealing with his new relationship and subsequent remarriage. The episode where the first major hint of depression occurred was when Karen told her kids she was going to spend Thanksgiving with friends, and instead retreats into her bedroom for the entire holiday weekend. She begins to be less and less able to deal with everyday tasks, and her kids are savvy enough to note that when she's depressed, she quits eating or caring about food, hence the empty fridge when they're looking for a meal. Given how quickly the whole issue was handled, the writers did a good job of making the depression credible. In one of her therapy sessions, she mentions that her mother suffered from chronic depression, which had been undiagnosed, and that she had herself had bouts of depression while she was married. Her ex-husband also references the previous episodes of depression, so we're not supposed to believe that the depression just came out of nowhere. Again, it was handled with insight and sensitivity. Unfortunately, that is not the norm when most tv shows address mental health issues; it's all too often a case where the problem is introduced, identified, and resolved in one episode and never mentioned again.

ETA: ultimategirl, great minds think alike and all that, because damn! your comments showed up while I was posting mine.

Edited by BookWoman56, Sep 29, 2004 @ 8:47 PM.

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#28

Actionmage

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Posted Sep 29, 2004 @ 4:10 AM

I agree with you, ultimategirl and BookWoman56- OaA's handing of Karen's depression was thoughtful. The car accident episode left me sobbing.

The Peter Berg series, Wonderland, I watched and taped. All two episodes, and this was before I found TWoP. It had the gallows humor echopapa was talking about and a strong cast that could've done justice to the material if the network (ABC, unsurprisingly) hadn't yanked it off the schedule. It was on opposite er, so that may be why you missed it,miasadie.

I cannot remember which N*Sync music video it was, but one was set in an asylum. I was very angry at them because they used such obvious caricatures of "inmates". I use the words asylum and inmates because that was the vibe. A woman dumped them and they went "crazy", crazy enough to be put in an asylum and blow bubbles mournfully. Or wear a superhero suit. (Yeah, Joey likes Superman, and?) Or a propeller beanie. Of course, the straightjacket was used. (No ball gags, unfortunately.)

I'm also on the J.K. Simmons and B.D. Wong love train. They rock.

And on a whaa-? note: what has that litigous group done to shrinks? I'm out of the loop on that.
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#29

Justin Cognito

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Posted Sep 29, 2004 @ 5:21 AM

I'm also on the J.K. Simmons and B.D. Wong love train. They rock.


While I'm on the B.D. Wong love train regardless, I'd love him even more if they gave Huang something to do. He hasn't done anything except add back-up data since "Execution". I'm actually trying to write spec scripts for SVU now, and sometimes the hardest part is, "Damn, how can I use Huang this episode?"

Edited by Justin Cognito, Sep 29, 2004 @ 5:21 AM.

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#30

Corydoran

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Posted Sep 29, 2004 @ 11:49 AM

I loved how the writers of Scrubs dealt with denial so well in "My Screw Up." For such a long time, I felt JD's line ("Where do you think we are?") was the greatest of the seaon.

I was a Psychology major who was really interested in clinical therapy, so it's kind of fun for me when a character shows up and I know they'd be headed towards some kind of mental issue if they existed in real life (e.g. Luke in Joan of Arcadia, maybe Charlie in Lost, Jack in Jack and Bobby though I know that won't happen in the series, etc.).
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