Are We Failing Police Officers?

TRIGGER WARNING:  this post discusses suicide and mental ill-health very specifically amongst police officers – those affected by these issues should carefully consider whether or not to read on.  There is support available via the links and phone numbers at the bottom of this page, if needed.

Two separate news articles from opposite sides of our planet caught my attention this week: each of them referring to suicide and mental distress amongst police officers.  In the state of Victoria in Australia, the Chief Commissioner has set up two separate, but clearly related, external inquiries into police deaths and depression.  These reviews emerged after seven police officers in the last two and a half years took their own lives.  Set against a workforce of over twelve and a half thousand, that number may not seem large but that department estimate that as many as thirty officers are currently at risk of suicide.

Meanwhile, a police sergeant in Toronto took his own life after leaving a suicide note specifically attributing his decision to work-related issues and his battle with PTSD.  His family is calling for the inquest to examine the officer’s claims against a background that includes other police suicides and a former police sergeant’s criticism of the support he received for PTSD.  And let’s face it: these two countries are not alone and this issue does not just affect police officers. There are more deaths of US police officers after suicide than after homicide each year.  Queries a year or two ago to Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary revealed that police forces here do not collate data on suicides, but we know there have recently been several and that policing in the UK is considered one of the higher-risk professions.

So, are we failing police officers? … or emergency first responders?


Mental ill-health in policing generally is a subject we don’t discuss very much: having asked these men and woman to go and do a pile of stuff the rest of us wouldn’t do, it should come as no surprise that the police, like paramedics, are four times as likely to suffer from stress, depression and anxiety when compared to the population as a whole.  When I do talks that touch on the broad subject of mental health and policing, you often find questions asked about mental health in policing.  You don’t have to look hard to find something to say, either – individual anecdotes of suicides by serving officers, perceptions of in-house support and more general comments about the extent to which we don’t seem to have fully understood this.  We know from research that acute levels of stress in policing are probably connected to non-negligible levels of mental illness.

If you spend even a short amount of time on social media, you will bump into numerous examples of current and former officers living with mental health issues and plenty of those will say that they felt unsupported at key times.  It must be said, that prevalence of distress and suicide risk has been linked in some instances with criminal or disciplinary procedures against officers so it is always going to be difficult in some cases to be both impartial prosecutor and supportive employer.  I’m aware of several legal actions ongoing by former officers under employment law for alleged failures in a duty of care or because they have alleged failures to support employees suffering from mental distress or give proper regard to mental ill-health when it comes to personnel processes.  Of course, mental health problems are classified for the purposes of the Equality Act as protected characteristics.  Officers who experience mental health problems at work are – in theory, at least – no different to officers who become physically disabled after an assault or accident.  And as with physical health problems, disability can arise for all manner of reasons, including work related reasons.

So where is the narrative that talks about police work as a line of work that can carry a cost in terms of mental health?

Asking this question is not to ignore that other professions – including other emergency first-responders – are also at raised risk of inflicting psychological distress upon their staff.  In particular, rates of PTSD in police officers (and in other first-responders) are concerning.  More concerning still, are the support mechanisms available in many cases.  We know that amidst public sector cuts, some police forces are having to reduce the counselling and other support that is able to be offered to staff and that NHS support for counselling and CBT can involve as much as an eighteen month wait.


NSYThe demographics of recruitment and retention don’t help trends in police suicide and mental ill-health.  Reporting on suicide in the population as a whole puts young and early middle-aged men right in the danger zone, when it comes to predicting overall probabilities.  The Samaritans produced a very comprehensive report on suicide in the UK and Ireland this year and it provides detail on age and other demographic factors.

So in a profession that is still comprised mainly of men, the profession-level risks become amplified and obvious.  Every time I read initiatives about male mental health, I must admit I think about my predominantly male colleagues up against a culture that suggests you should be able to cope and a structure that may struggle to support you anyway.

You can see clues about police culture all around and much academic time has been given over to studying it.  Suffice to say here: none of the seven police officers in Victoria who took their own lives sought help from their employer.  So where suicide is the leading cause of death generally in men from certain age groups, we should be concerned about the risk of suicide in a profession that has higher than average rates of psychological distress and mental disorder and which is predominatly male.  Of course, female officers are affected too and whilst female suicide rates are much lower than those for men, female rates of self-harm are much higher.  It means we need think about how staff may be differently affected and think way beyond suicide.

The above report from the police in Victoria is not the first to make the claim that more days are lost to sickness in the police to mental health and other psychological problems than to physical health problems.  And sickness days lost to stress, depression and anxiety is on the rise.  Reports suggest that since 2010, sickness arising from mental health and psychological problems is up significantly.  In the North East of England, three police forces reported percentage rises of 260%, 122% and 37% compared to three years previously.  Even a 37% rise is significant and despite my efforts, I couldn’t find a news article suggesting that any UK police force had seen a decrease.  Let me know if you find one.

It’s worth noting the emphasis placed by forces upon the potential for personal circumstances to give rise to this trend.  In response to the story of north-east forces as well as elsewhere, senior officers have been keen to stress this and of course, that will be part of it.  But it must be said, there seems to be a lack of acknowledgement of the role that police work pays in causing distress and illness amongst officers.  In 2007, psychological problems were listed at the top of those reasons that cause long-term absence in a report by the Health and Safety Executive.  It would be really interesting to read an up to date version of this report.


For some while now, I’ve felt that we need to see the development of a charitable organisation specifically aimed at supporting police officers (or 999 personnel as a whole) suffering from psychological distress and mental health problems.  I keep seeing the effort, the work and the impact of Combat Stress in drawing attention to and supporting our Armed Forces Veterans.  The issues in policing and emergency services work being different, with obvious overlaps, it strikes me that there is a gap that needs filling.  So it seems we could be doing a whole lot more and talking about this would be a good start – the Time To Change initiative has long since focussed its message on the importance of an open dialogue about mental health problems, but they also highlighted that policing is in the top two professional groups to be comparatively unaffected by its campaigns.  Yet how many times have we heard police officers who have found themselves living in distress say something similar to, “I would have thought I was the sort of person to affected by mental health problems.”

There is the knuckle of the problem – there is no type of person.  It’s about the broader human condition and the way we live our lives.  In my humble opinion.

Are we failing police officers? – let’s just say we have a long way to go.  Who’s protecting the protectors?

NB:  if you have been affected by the issues in this post, you can talk to the Samaritans for the price of a local phone call on 08457 909090.

IMG_0053IMG_0052Winner of the President’s Medal from
the Royal College of Psychiatrists.

Winner of the Mind Digital Media Award.

31 thoughts on “Are We Failing Police Officers?

  1. The elephant in the room.Certainly time for something along the lines of Combat Stress for all first responders whose exposure to harrowing situations is beyond what most people can comprehend. But potentially adding to the load and preventing officers seeking help is a knowing. an understanding that once it gets to crisis point there is very little help out there.They see this day in ,day out when attending MH crises – often when MH services don’t.

    Knowing how basic and brutal MH services can be, knowing that there is little dignity or confidentiality prevents many people in front line services from seeking help at that point of utter desperation.For police officers the idea that it may be their colleagues who are asked to attend to them in crisis is possibly a step too far.It certainly is for other front line workers.

    A lot more pre-emptive support is needed.There is still massive stigma around mental health and disclosure carries risks so once stress becomes symptomatic the barriers go up – if for no other reason than to ‘protect’ yourself. The simple fact that men are at most risk of completed suicide makes the police much more vulnerable. And the impact of suicide on those left behind – including colleagues – is massive

  2. I’m a female DC, who suffered depression during her probation as a PC in 2006, lasting several years. Interestingly, many other countries psychologically vet their recruits prior to employment offers. I suspect that if this had taken place here, I would not have been taken on because it is apparent to me now (with 20/20 hindsight) that in fact I had suffered depression for many years prior to my diagnosis.

    Part of the trigger to seek help came after a fatal RTC I had attended, and a shift debrief in the kitchen with a cup of tea at the table. It was when a long-in-the-tooth male colleague I respected greatly “admitted” that he had had counselling three times after similar incidents, that I realised there was no shame in this. If someone like him could get help, why on earth couldn’t I?

    I received counselling a number of times, had CBT for my anxiety issues and was on anti-depressants for a long time. I’m now clear of pills and potions, and a little up and down with the anxiety, but can finally recognise the symptoms of another slide into depression and take proactive action.

    It has made me something of an evangelist about depression, and it’s amazing the differeing attitudes you get from colleagues and senior officers when you talk about your own experiences. The number of police officers who believe that depression doesn’t exist absolutely astonishes me.

    Sadly, my force handled my illness very badly – led, it had to be said, by Occupational Health, who were unsympathetic and frankly aggressive when I was at my lowest and suicidal. I’m led to believe things are improving, but having no need to go through that process again, I don’t know what has been changed.

    Keep going, Insp Brown – people like you are going to force change where it is sorely needed. It may well save lives and for that I can’t thank you enough.

    Lots of love


  3. I suffer depression, only dignosed this year having gradually gone down over the past year. Luckily I managed to recognise & ‘self help’ before it got to be a major issue. The signs at work were there, blatantly obvious but no one recognised them. No one thought it was strange how a super enthusiastic officer suddenly lost interest.
    I have been completely open about my depression, now I get the token ‘Would you like a referal to occupational health?’ Or ‘Here is the number for the Employee Assistance Programme’.
    There is no easy way to deal with an employee suffering mental health problems, but we need to train everyone to recognise the signs and give them the tools to be able to deal with it properly.
    It is not just the line managers job, we all need to look out for each other.
    With all the cuts and issues ongoing this is going to be a bigger problem, officers are suffering greater stress than ever before and we need to prepare and put processes in place now.

  4. I am an ex traffic patrol officer who retired in 2011 after full 30 years service in the job. In my last 6 years I had major episodes of PTSD, depression and anxiety. I now have management tools and medication in place and a very supportive family.

    I now work for Your Way and when I have finished my basic training I would like to be able to specialise in Emergency Service Personnel as this is an area where there is little if any support for those of us that have seen what others don’t see in our working lives and their families.

  5. In my 3 county area we have a year long project to improve suicide intervention and prevention. The stakeholders list is long and includes the police. Their geographical area matches the one the forum covers. Our aim is to educate in all areas gp’s, schools, railways, A&E depts, employers etc. The local police force could possibly benefit from some of the work that we cover yet we can’t get a response from them. Our project manager is being bounced from person to person each one saying it’s not within their remit. There seems to be a reluctance from them to engage either in getting info from us regarding their handling of suicidal persons during their police work or supporting their own staff because we also hope to engage with employers. Reading your blog makes me want to bang a lot of heads together because PTSD or depression is a very real and horrible problem that should not be stigmatized or swept under the carpet. And as you point out what the police have to deal with on a daily basis makes them more susceptible.

  6. I am currently a Research Fellow with Manchester Metropolitan University and a serving police officer. I’m currently researching the mental health support available to police officers and PCSO’s and how those who have experience of mental ill health perceive the support given by the police organisation and their colleagues. With the increasing numbers of staff absent from work long term due to mental ill health and the future cuts in staff numbers which will no doubt put extra pressures on those within the workplace, solutions and appropriate support needs to be identified sooner rather than later. I’d welcome information on how other forces/ individuals are supporting staff and addressing these issues.

  7. I had an interesting encounter with a consultant psychiatrist a couple of years ago, having been referred to her by my GP whilst suffering from stress caused – in my opinion – by work-related bullying. ‘I see this all too often. This is the result of modern public sector management’.

    Part of the internal problem for the police responding to mental health problems is first and foremost ‘damage control’. Reducing the potential impact for the organisation, not helping the person affected. No wonder a good number of police officers distrust the motivation of internal health services or occupational health. My Fed Rep stated their advice was NEVER to meet an OH nurse / OH psychiatric worker alone.

    Medical (OH) files are ‘lost’ for months, OH uses internal email to arrange appointments when you are off sick for months and when finally contact is made – with an appointment with a retained consultant – are stunned when asked what support are you offering me now? The consultant apologised for the ‘loss’. Did OH ever explain? No.

    I wonder how many of the officers who crash on the way home after extra-long shifts were also suffering from mental health issues? This was a particular Pol Fed concern a few years ago in the author’s own force.

    So in answer to your question ‘Are we failing police officers?’ yes.

  8. Here’s a question I just thought of – what would be the effect on a police officer’s career if they ended up getting detained by colleagues under a Section 136? Would they get help, or dismissed?

    1. You’d need to ask those colleagues: I know of two officers personally who have been detained under s136 and one of them was subsequently sectioned under the MHA and spent a while in hospital. I know one of those two would say they were well enough supported and the other would quite forcefully say the opposite. Several officers have concluded that following MH related crisis incidents, they have resigned because of organisational responses (whether from bosses or colleagues).

  9. I have been suffering from depression and anxiety for the past 16 months, this is my first ever experience of mental health, stress or depression and i have learned a lot about myself and life in general including my own prejudices regarding such illnesses prior to suffereing from them.

    My breakdown started as a result of some line managers’ bullying and the egotistical manner in the way they acted when resisting my requests for reasonable adjustsments for a physical disability that i was managing.

    I lodged a grievance and a tribunal both of which have still not been finalised some 18 months later.

    I have self harmed, been suicidal and also prone to rages of extreme anger where i have been tormented by thoughts of causing severe violence to others that i feel have done me wrong – even petty things like not acknowledging me when i have shown drivng courtesy and gave way at a junction etc have started me off on an unnatural rage for which i could be locked up for under public order offences at the very least..

    I was referred to the Community Mental Health team and luckily i am not considered as being psychotic or a danger, this is based on the way that i handle the rages, my medication and by me employing some taught CBT tactics. I still remain on super doses of medication and have recieved lots of intensive counselling.

    My force OH – specifically the Welfare dept have been great, paying for external counselling as i suffer extreme paranoia that the Professional Standards were and still are after me, this paranoia is further fueled by my previous knowledge of professional standards investigations and my role as a RIPA expert working with other forces on PSD investigations.

    However the way that the internal grievance has been handled, the way my senior managers now treat me and the way that all the so called ‘experts’ have dealt with me and my mental health has been less than helpful. My current line manager is great, my workmates are great but the bosses, OH doctors and other HR people have tried to avoid their culpability and obligations regarding the cause of my mental illness and the management of it, focussing my return to work following a few months sick solely on the physical disability – all in an attmept to save the force money in the case of an ill helath retirement or a further tribunal that may come about from their failures.
    It seems that the mention of mental illnes and police officers are not allowed to go together in my force.

    I am restricted as such that i cannot be deployed to any uncontrolled enviroment, even dealing with members of the public on the telephone is not allowed. I am however still very useful as a Police officer with vast knowledge and experience of covert Policing and serious and organised crime investigations. All areas of work that i can conduct with great effcieincy and professionalism due to my training and experience.

    I was sick for 3-4 months then asked to come back as my mind was playing further tricks on me when i was at home alone. I returned to work and have remained in work succesfully for a year but every day still remains a real challenge.

    At no stage, other than the external counselling provided by welfare budget has anyone asked me about adjustments relating to my mental health. Not my managers, HR or OH My line manager is afraid to broach the subject, he is as good as gold and allows me to self manage my condition but it just seems like the whole subject of mental illness is taboo.
    I am constantly worried about the Winsor reccomendations catching up to me and then being cast aside as scrap due to both my physical disability and my mental health state.

    There should be more training for all staff, especially senior managers in relation to Mental Ill Health and staff, howver as can be seen by the way the government treat those of us with mental illness. it is clear that we are conidered unworthy of help. I constantly hear ‘pull your self together’, ‘get over it’, ‘are you sure you can cope’, ‘you need to get a grip’ and other similar things from various people within and outside of the organisation.

    There needs to be a greater awareness and education around such matters.
    THe federation have provided support but again, are poorly trained and sometimes not up to the task of providing the support needed.

  10. I came into the service late in life after serving in the military in some ways I was expecting a similar closely bonded team with support from immediate supervisors etc what I have found a I accept this is my experience in one force is the total opposite, there is still a very strong shall we say Macho culture where any number of people are only to willing to be little those who suffer either physical or mental health problems lets be honest most officers first response to those jobs where person is deemed to suffer mental health issue will be derogatory this is the same towards colleagues first assumption is they are pulling a fast one, need to man up, excuse because they can’t do the job then the supervisors put there dig in because in the most part they have no idea how to deal with the problem the old days of calling occy health have gone its now a third party company contracted to offer support on the end of a phone, then there is the affect on a officers career once you admit you have stress / anxiety or PTSD your career is over you might remain in the job but no chance of progression, there is limited if any support, even less understanding of the issues, there is still this idea that only front line soldiers can suffer PTSD and finally from those higher up the management ladder how often do we hear “Never had this in my day” attitude.
    Combat stress do a marvelous job for the armed forces that’s Army navy Airforce and reserves why cant we have one organisation offering the same service for all emergency services in stead of the ad hoc system form force to force, society has changed despite what the old sweat say pressures and demands are different, reduced budgets reduced numbers surely the time is now to look after the workforce it wont happen because in a target driven culture it would mean admitting there is a problem and if we do that we need to address it so much easier for the top corridor to pretend there is no problem and those poor souls who do suffer can be quietly edged out

  11. This is a fascinating debate unfolding as a CPN working so closely with the Police.

    The responses are heartfelt and their honesty is humbling. I work with two different officers every shift and the thing that strikes me is how mentally challenging the job is. Most of the challenge appears to stem from the pressure to make sure you don’t make the wrong decision. The perceived impact of making the wrong decision is so great that it affects how you do your jobs. This is not a supportive, caring working environment to begin with and I can only imagine how it must feel to go home hanging on to the worries of decisions made during the shift and how they may rebound upon you.

    The particular incidents themselves are less of the issue than the post incident support. 18months wait for CBT is far too long, it would be interesting to know where this is the case, why this is the case in that area and what is that area doing about IAPT services whose sole goal is to (as the name says on the tin) Improve Access to Psychological Therapies?

    This, coupled with dwindling shift numbers, pressure (orders) to remain beyond the shift and little protected time to complete vital admin (believe me, as a nurse I know how onerous admin is but equally how important accuracy and timely completion is too). It seems that family and non-police time is not considered. It’s a recipe for poor mental well-being.

    The 136 ‘thing’ is true for all, I am constantly mindful of the future of all those I see and contemplate requesting MHA assessments. The after effects on all careers and many other aspects of life are sometimes far greater than for a criminal conviction. The stigma of mental health has a long way to go before it is conquered and accepted.

  12. I believe shift work may sometimes be an exacerbating factor as it can lead to worse quality sleep and contribute to poor mental health by that means. Any night shift worker has higher risk of various diseases including mental ill-health. Also, as with other professions which can lead to stress, there is a strong tendency to ‘self-medicate’ with alcohol, which is probably not even done knowingly, as there is a culture (or used to be anyway) of socialising with alcohol, so that the alcohol to some extent would numb the feelings, and everyone could carry on with the usual macho rationalisations that they’re not depressed, they just needed a drink, and in most cases, actually do become rather hardened to it all . . . . except for the ones for whom this doesn’t work, because it’s the opposite of what they really need in order to survive.

  13. Absolutely spot on post. Over my twelve years in this uniform and 12 years in green, I have seen some bloody good people drop, with MH problems, due to the trauma and stresses of the job. I had the misfortune of dealing with the immediate aftermath & scene of the death of a fellow officer and friend. This was on top of having previously responded to the death of another officer and friend, killed on duty. As ever with these things, I never knew I was about to take a hit. The timely intervention of my forces Oc Health MH specialist, a no nonsense, straight talking and honest individual, highly respected and valued by officers, put me back on track before the worst.

    Our force made them redundant in a review of Oc Health services recently, despite the high regard response officers held them in. They did more to de-stigmatise officer trauma than anyone I know. How do you place a value on that?

  14. Police officers should be fit for duty. If they want to jump NHS waiting lists then they should pay for treatment privately. They are paid to do a job, and if they don’t like it, find another.

    1. I believe if you look at the statistics you’ll see that an awful lot of them do feel compelled to leave and find another job. It’s a real challenge for recruiters to find people of the right calibre who are tough enough . . . but not too hardened . . .

      1. Same with care assistants who feed people with Alzheimers, only they get no sick pay and work 55 hours per week at £6.20 hour. Why should they pay tax to fund therapy for police officers? Isn’t that unfair?

  15. Ok, I do understand that police officers need to speak to someone trustworthy about sensitive details of operations, but I think it is fair that expecting people who live with NHS mental health services to understand that may be a *difficult* task.
    Also, people with poor mental health such as sexual abuse victims frequently end up in prison because of police involvement. Where is the justice in that? It looks like special pleading to have special police help, and I’m not inclined to be moved.

  16. Police officers are paid minimum wage? Police officers work long hours, yes, I can remember my father working for two days continually. But still, I think working with people who have lost the ability to eat, drink, wash, dress, are aggressive and continually violent is a much harder task than arresting and interviewing people, trying to save someones life who has just cut their throat (and failing) or arresting someone who has just raped and drowned someone.
    Why, because people with severe dementia are human and they are dying. Some lose the ability to swallow. Police officers rarely have continual exposure , just brief trauma, which they want to sue everyone for. And drinking is for people who make themselves unavailable for duty at public expense.

  17. Actually, many police officers love their job. It is exciting and varied. If you don’t enjoy stress, then its not for you. Yes, there is a macho drinking culture. No, it doesn’t suit sensitive people (like me). There are only so many times you can hear the ‘was it fat or an accelerant?’ story without feeling mildly ill. However, the suicide rate is low. Imagine being a patient at a day hospital where the rate is one in ten? Not one in thousands.

  18. Yes we are failing. I was retired from my force, after 23yrs service, with mental health problems. These problems have been linked by psychiatrists to work. I have had no support whatever since the day I left, even the police convalescent home refuses to take people with mh problems. I have no idea where to turn for help. There is absolutely nowhere to go unlike the many ex forces charities. I am at my wits end.

    1. Sandra – try a website called Safe Horizons UK which is run by the wife of a former officer called Claire McDOWELL. Plenty of cops and ex-cops have told me it’s a really good place to start.

      1. If there are any serving or non serving officers in the East Sussex Area I work for a Mental Health charity called Together for Mental Well Being and the wing of it Iwork for is Your Way.
        I am willing to support anyone who needs support PM me and we can discuss.
        I have just starded a blog about the hole I fell into.
        Phil Hicks

  19. Sandra I would also recommend Safe Horizons UK i was recently directed to the site at so far very impressed

  20. I have suffered with PTSD for ten years, although that’s from diagnosis, you could probably add another ten years when I was in denial. I know have to leave the job as the Force hasn’t made any reasonable adjustments for my condition. Several years ago I ‘came out’ and told my colleagues that I was mentally ill, I was initially apprehensive but I was amazed at the number of people who would seek me out to discuss their mental illnesses. I am losing a lot of money from my pension leaving early but how can I stay in an environment that is making me ill. While I can’t afford the loss I owe it to my loved ones to be a better person. I’ve been to the cliff top and seen how far down it is (meteforically) I managed to turn away and keep on walking but I can understand those that took the final step. It is not difficult to administer somebody that is mentally ill as long as you take the time to understand them. I asked to be a mental health champion but I was told that was just to assist members of the public, once again Police Officers are second class citizens. For those that are suffering, when your mind tells you to turn right, turn left and smile, because you’re in charge.

  21. In my force they automatically place staff on a LASM (kind of like a warning procedure which escalates each time you are off sick) if they go sick with stress … Apparently that’s called progress!

  22. Together with a friend I have set up ServiceDogsUK – a charitable organisation that trains and provides assistance dogs to veterans of both the Armed Forces and the Emergency Services who struggle with PTSD due to their experiences in service, our other mission is to bring the issue to the fore, remove stigma and educate people about PTSD and mental health issues in the Services.
    We researched a great deal about PTSD also in the eg the police and what stands out compared to other nations is that the UK is rather slow (understatement) to recognise that PTSD actually affects those on the frontlines. Eg. In the Netherlands PTSD was recognised in the late 60s initially for the Armed Forces but now organisations like the Base (a fantastic organisation who sign posts services & more) are doing great things and have done for many years – not just for Armed Forces but also for the Emergency Services. They equally have and are lobbying hard to legislative changes so support is provided as well as that recognition is given to both Armed Forces and Emergency Services. This shows itself in terms of funding where their operation are mostly funded by government and the services, as it is accepted not swiped under the carpet, and forces themselves. On the ground, eg, it means there are “support booths” for police officers in most major police stations, it means that if an officer has an issue THERE IS ACTUAL HELP in private and in confidence, outside of the Service. When we visited it was both uplifting to see (amazing provision) but also rather disheartening to see how far the UK still has to go in terms of seeing mental health provision for the Emergency Services and the recognition that those that serve be it at abroad OR AT HOME deserve the help and in fact it is very much “Society’s Responsibility” to do so.

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