Mental Health Matters: What to Know About Mental Illness

Mental Health Matters: What to Know About Mental Illness
Mental Health Matters: What to Know About Mental Illness
Emma Yasinski
Emma Yasinski Staff Writer
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Mental health is a description of your psychological and emotional wellbeing. Your mental health can impact everything from your productivity at work or school, to your relationships to your risk for long term conditions like heart disease.

Making sure you get regular exercise, eat a healthy diet, socialize and take time to relax are all crucial to maintaining your mental health. But sometimes, mental health conditions, also known as mental illnesses, strike anyway. A mental illness is any condition, such as depression or schizophrenia, that impacts your thinking, behavior, or mood. While they often emerge on their own, they can also accompany other diseases, such as Parkinson’s disease.

Here’s what you need to know about mental health, mental illness, and how you can manage them.

Types of Mental Health Conditions


Everyone experiences anxiety from time to time. It’s a healthy response to occasional stressors, but sometimes these symptoms interfere with your daily life. Some types of anxiety disorders include:

  • Generalized Anxiety Disorder, which is characterized by ongoing fear and dread for months or years.
  • Social Anxiety Disorder, experiencing intense fear of being judged by others. 
  • Panic Disorder, a condition characterized by panic attacks or a sudden and intense fear of losing control that may cause a racing heart or difficulty breathing.
  • Phobias, a fear that outweighs the actual risk of a perceived threat such as heights, flying, spiders, or leaving your house.

Anxiety, especially generalized anxiety disorder, can be difficult to identify, since many of the symptoms are normal in certain situations. When they start to interfere with your life, you should see a doctor to determine how best to move forward. Symptoms of anxiety disorder can include:

  • Restlessness
  • Fatigue
  • Irritability
  • Unexplained aches and pains
  • Excessive worrying
  • Feeling a loss of control
  • Difficulty sleeping
  • Racing heart 
  • Sweating 
  • Chest pain
  • Sweating 
  • Blushing
  • Self consciousness 
  • Fear of judgment
  • Difficulty making eye contact


Like anxiety, a depressed mood is common, and not necessarily a reason for concern. However, if feelings of emptiness and worthlessness or other symptoms last for two weeks or more, it’s time to talk to your healthcare provider. 

Sometimes you won’t know why you’re depressed. Other times, it can be triggered by certain situations like becoming pregnant (perinatal depression), having recently given birth (postpartum depression), or a change in seasons (Seasonal Affective Disorder). Psychosis, a break with reality, can also accompany depression symptoms. If you experience psychosis, seek medical attention right away.

Symptoms of depression include:

  • Persistent feelings of sadness, emptiness, worthlessness, hopelessness, frustration or irritability
  • Loss of interest in hobbies or activities you used to enjoy
  • Fatigue
  • Difficulty concentrating or remembering things
  • Trouble sleeping
  • Unexplained aches and pains 
  • Thoughts of suicide
  • Unexplained changes in appetite or weight

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)

Most people feel fear after a traumatic event, but for some people, these feelings last longer than others. If your fear continues for more than a month and interferes with your daily activities, you might have PTSD. Typically, experts describe these symptoms as happening because your body is struggling to get out of “fight or flight” response mode and can’t tell the difference between true threats and safe situations. 

Read about how one patient worked with her doctors to reduce both her medications and her loneliness to help manage her PTSD.

Symptoms of PTSD might include:

  • Frightening thoughts
  • Being easily startled 
  • Avoiding situations that remind you of the traumatic event
  • Feeling “on edge” or extremely irritable
  • Difficulty sleeping
  • Flashbacks
  • Difficulty remembering details about the event
  • Misplaced feelings of guilt or blame

Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD)

People with ADHD struggle with inattention, impulsivity, and/or hyperactivity. Like with many other mental illnesses, most of these symptoms are common in healthy individuals, but when they interfere with your life or your ability to perform at work, school, or even social settings, it might help to speak with a healthcare professional.

Symptoms of ADHD include: 

  • Missing details or making mistakes at school or work
  • Losing items frequently
  • Seeming to not pay attention to people who are speaking
  • Getting distracted and struggling to finish tasks or assignments
  • Fidgeting
  • Restlessness and running around
  • Excessively talking
  • Having difficulty waiting your turn in a game or conversation
  • Frequently interrupting others

Bipolar Disorder

Bipolar disorder, formerly called manic depression, is a mental disorder characterized by drastic and intense shifts in energy, mood, and activity level. Individuals can be exuberant and euphoric, irritable, severely depressed, or explosive. 

Symptoms can include racing thoughts, impulsive behavior, self-destructive behavior, and suicidal behavior. The symptoms and patterns can vary between individuals, but the core presentation of episodes of mood and energy changes are always there.

Symptoms of a manic episode of bipolar disorder include:

  • Feeling jumpy, irritable or touchy
  • Needing less sleep 
  • Racing thoughts
  • Feeling extra productive
  • Feeling that you’re exceptionally powerful or talented

Symptoms of a depressive episode of bipolar disorder include:

  • Feeling slowed down
  • Feeling sadness or anxiety
  • Feeling forgetful or like you don’t have anything to say
  • Losing interest in activities you used to enjoy

Read about Valerie Barna’s experience learning to manage bipolar disorder.

Borderline Personality Disorder

Borderline personality disorder is characterized by frequent mood swings and an inconsistent view of yourself. These feelings can cause a lot of distress and problems in relationships. 

Symptoms of bipolar disorder include:

  • Viewing things in extremes—all good or all bad
  • Unstable relationships, tending to rush in or out of relationships
  • Distorted perception of yourself
  • Impulsive and dangerous behaviors such as spending, gambling, binge eating, or reckless driving 
  • Intense moods that swing over the course of hours or days
  • Intense anger 

Hear Christopher Williams describe how he manages his diagnosis: 

@medshadow_foundation Christopher Williams talks to MedShadow Foundation about borderline personality disorder. #mentalhealth #mentalhealthmatters #healthandwellness #mentalhealthawareness #health #bpd #mentalhealthtiktoks #borderlinedisorder #therapy #therapytok #therapytiktok #therapysessions #medshadow #medshadowfoundation #borderlinepersonalitydisorder #borderlinepersonality #borderliner ♬ Stories 2 – Danilo Stankovic

Eating Disorders

Eating disorders are conditions in which you experience severe changes in your eating behaviors. You’re probably familiar with anorexia nervosa, the disorder in which people eat far less food than they need, and often (though not always) become emaciated. But there are other disorders in which you restrict the foods and food groups you eat so much that it becomes an obsession or causes nutrient deficiencies. You might also deal with binges, situations in which you eat large quantities of food very quickly. These conditions can cause inconsistencies in how you view your body, and are associated with other mental health challenges such as anxiety and depression.

Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD)

People with OCD experience either repeated thoughts or behaviors that they struggle to control. The repetitive thoughts can cause severe anxiety that in certain situations can only be soothed by repetitive behavior such as repeatedly washing your hands in response to constant concerns about germs. Symptoms that differentiate OCD from typical rituals include: 

  • The inability to control thoughts or behaviors even when you know they’re excessive
  • Thoughts or behaviors that interfere with daily life
  • Spending more than an hour a day on the rituals

Schizophrenia and Schizoaffective Disorder

People with schizophrenia experience changes in the way they experience the world. They may see things that aren’t there or form beliefs that aren’t accurate. To explain what this looks like, one doctor told MedShadow that it’s like knowing you have a smoke detector in your exam room, but for the patient, it’s not a smoke detector, it’s a camera trying to observe them.

Symptoms of schizophrenia include:

  • Difficulty planning daily activities
  • Limited facial expressions
  • Low energy
  • Difficulty imagining or experiencing pleasure
  • Abnormal, repetitive body movements
  • Having hallucinations

Substance Use Disorders

People with substance use disorders have difficulty controlling their use of substances like alcohol, opioids, benzodiazepines, or other drugs. You may use a substance compulsively, and continue to do so despite negative consequences or impacts on your family or social life. 

Substance use disorders are not clear cut. They can be mild, moderate, or severe, and the level of the diagnosis typically depends on the extent to which the disorder is negatively impacting your life. Depending on the substance or substances you’re using, treatment may include medications that help with withdrawal, antidepressants, anti-anxieties or behavioral therapy.

How Long Does Psychosis Last?

Psychosis is a condition in which a person experiences a break from reality. They may hallucinate, or develop beliefs that aren’t accurate. Psychosis can be a symptom of certain mental illnesses, such as schizophrenia, but it can also be caused by lack of sleep, use of drugs, hospital stays or acute illnesses.

If left untreated, psychosis can last for one to two years, according to a review of 10 studies.

How Does Mental Health Impact Physical Health?

Mental and physical health both impact each other. If you have depression, for example, it can be extremely difficult to motivate yourself to exercise or eat properly. Mental illnesses can also interrupt your sleep. Depression is associated with increased risks of a variety of chronic conditions, such as heart disease, diabetes, and stroke, according to the CDC. Improving your mental health can improve your physical health, and vice versa.

Types of Therapy

Therapy can be one of the most important strategies to manage any type of mental health condition. There are several different types of therapy, and different therapists may specialize in different types. It’s important to consider their specialties and maybe even shop around for one that you feel like you connect with. To read more about the types of therapy, such as cognitive behavioral therapy, psychodynamic, and dialectic behavioral therapy, and think about which one might be best for you, check out this article.

Mental Health Challenges as a Drug Side Effect

A lot of drugs that you take for other conditions can also impact your mental health. For example, antibiotics, acne medications, and diuretics can all cause anxiety. If you start to experience new changes in your mental health, like an increase in depressive symptoms, difficulty sleeping, or anxiety, ask your healthcare provider if it could be your medications.

Read Shawna de la Rosa’s first-hand account of the scary psychiatric side effects she felt while taking corticosteroids, and Laura Moratta’s description of the harrowing journey she went through with her 11-year-old son when he started taking Singulair for asthma. 

Exercise and Mental Health

Exercise does a lot more than help you manage your weight. It can play a crucial role in managing your mental health, whether or not you struggle with a mental health condition. Studies have shown that even light or moderate exercise like walking or yoga can help with a variety of conditions, from anxiety to PTSD. 

Over time, exercise may even help you reduce your need to take medications. Getting your exercise in nature can offer additional health benefits, like lowering your blood pressure and reducing anxiety even further than an indoor workout. 

For inspiration ideas on how to get started exercising, check out these MedShadow resources. 

Outdoor Workouts When You Don’t Feel Like Running

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TikTok Your Way to Fitness

Diet and Mental Health

The foods you eat can have a direct effect on your mental health. 

One of the best diets to support your mental health is the Mediterranean Diet. In one study, those that adhered closest to the diet rated their wellbeing as higher than those that didn’t. In another study, eating more fruits and vegetables (important aspects of the Mediterranean Diet) predicted greater happiness over the next two years. In a small study of 67 people with depression, 12 weeks of dietary counseling improved their depression symptoms. Download MedShadow’s Mediterranean Diet Guide here.

Social Prescribing

How you spend your time and who you spend it with can make a big difference, too. That’s why some doctors are starting a movement toward “social prescribing.” They’re writing prescriptions for their patients to join fishing trips, art classes, and biking groups that they say can help people with depression, loneliness, diabetes and more.  


Occasional stress is healthy, but excessive stress can wreak havoc on both your mind and body. Finding healthy ways to manage it can help you cope with mental illness and reduce your need for medications. Check out these MedShadow resources that can help you manage stress.

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Getting Better Sleep

Sleep is crucial to both your physical and emotional wellbeing. Have you ever had a rough night of sleep, then felt like crying all day long, or have you craved carbohydrates even though you knew you’d already had enough to eat? That’s because sleep is incredibly important for your overall well being. Sleep disturbances are even linked to increasing suicidal thoughts. Almost 100% of veterans with PTSD report sleep disorders.

There are drugs that can help with sleep, but they often come with troubling side effects. Check out MedShadow’s Insomnia? Skip the Meds for Other Therapies Without Side Effects for tips, and YouTube Meditations to Help You Sleep.

Drugs to Treat Mental Health Conditions 

While many different lifestyle factors, environmental stressors, and changes in the brain can contribute to mental health conditions, healthcare professionals often rely on similar drugs to treat many of them. For example, antidepressants and antianxiety drugs are not just used to treat depression and anxiety, but they are often prescribed for OCD, bipolar disorder, and to support recovery from eating disorders. 

Side Effects of Antidepressants for Depression, PTSD, Anxiety, OCD, Bipolar Disorder, Eating Disorders, and More 

Antidepressants are often used to treat a variety of mental health disorders. The most common type of antidepressants are SSRIs (selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors). They work by preventing your brain cells from recycling a neurotransmitter called serotonin, leaving more of it available to act in your brain. Scientists have long suggested that people with depression often have lower levels of serotonin, which is known to be involved in satisfaction and happiness. In the brain, though, that idea is currently being debated in the scientific community.

Other types of antidepressants, including SNRIs (serotonin norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors,) such as Cymbalta (duloxetine) MAOIs (monoamine oxidase inhibitors), such as Nardil (phenelzine) and tricyclic antidepressants, such as amitriptyline, all similarly increase the availability of serotonin in your brain. Some also work by raising levels of another neurotransmitter, norepinephrine, along with serotonin.

Side effects of antidepressants include: 

  • Decreased sexual desire, arousal, and function 
  • Raised risk for hip fracture in seniors (from about a 2. 8% to 3.5% chance)
  • Increased risk of emergency room visits or death for seniors who also have COPD (15% and 20%, respectively)
  • Weight gain
  • Excessive sweating
  • Nausea
  • Drowsiness
  • Jitteriness 
  • Rise in blood pressure (venlafaxine, specifically)
  • Suicidal thoughts 

To read more about the risk of suicidal thoughts and actions, read MedShadow’s SSRIs and Suicide Risk in Those With Depression.

Side Effects of Esketamine (Spravato) 

Esketamine is often used to aid in treatment-resistant depression or PTSD. Two decades ago, ketamine was known as two things: an anesthetic used in pet surgery and a party drug nicknamed “special K” that was popular at raves. Now, it’s the hottest new treatment for depression that hasn’t responded despite psychotherapy or antidepressants.

Clinics have popped up across the United States over the past few years, offering hope to people whose depression doesn’t respond to other treatments. You’ll find them offering the treatments everywhere from big cities like New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles, to smaller communities like Jackson, Wyoming, and Montpelier, Vermont.

But the treatment, available as a nasal spray or infusion, is not one-and-done. Many people require regular, repeated sessions and insurance companies may try to avoid covering it. Esketamine can get you “high” which is one reason you need to visit a clinic and receive the treatment under supervision.

Other side effects of esketamine for depression or PTSD include:

  • Drowsiness/sedation
  • Anxiety
  • Confusion
  • Headache
  • A change in heart rate (faster or slower)
  • Tremors
  • Sweating
  • Suicidal thoughts 

Read about Morgan Godvin’s experience getting ketamine treatments for depression.

Side Effects of Benzodiazepines for Anxiety

Benzodiazepines work by encouraging a neurotransmitter, GABA, to bind to receptors in your brain. GABA inhibits brain activity, and helps calm your nervous system. Benzodiazepines are designed to be prescribed for short periods of time. The clinical trials for most of these drugs lasted only about 4-10 weeks. In some cases, doctors will suggest patients only take them as-needed, for example, only before boarding a flight. The drugs come with a variety of side effects, the risk of developing a substance use disorder and overdose.

Side effects of benzodiazepines for anxiety include:

  • Building a tolerance (requiring higher doses to get the same effect.)
  • Confusion
  • Constipation or nausea
  • Unsteady walking
  • Sexual dysfunction, including diminished orgasms, pain during intercourse, erectile dysfunction and ejaculation problems

If you stop taking benzodiazepine you may experience intense withdrawal symptoms such as insomnia, convulsions, tremors and vomiting. Read about several patients’ harrowing experiences struggling to stop taking benzodiazepines and SSRIs. 

Side Effects of Antipsychotics for Schizophrenia, Depression, Bipolar Disorder and More.

Often used to treat schizophrenia, depression, bipolar, and other mental health conditions, antipsychotics come with a number of side effects. There are two classes of antipsychotics. 

First-generation antipsychotics block a neurotransmitter in your brain called dopamine. Second-generation antipsychotics also block dopamine, but to a lesser extent than first-generation drugs. The second-generation antipsychotics also help raise levels of another neurotransmitter, serotonin, which can help you feel calm and content. That’s why they’re sometimes prescribed alongside antidepressants, which also often work by increasing availability of serotonin in your brain.

Not all the effects of antipsychotics are well-understood, but they include:

  • Fatigue/drowsiness
  • Dry mouth
  • Difficulty enjoying sex
  • Weight gain
  • Movement disorders such as tardive dyskinesia, which tend to develop after using the treatment for years.

Side Effects of Medications for ADHD

It’s unclear exactly how ADHD medications work, but stimulants, such as Ritalin, seem to increase levels of the neurotransmitter dopamine, while non-stimulants, such as Strattera, boost the neurotransmitter norepinephrine, both of which help different areas of the brain communicate more effectively. This, in turn, improves alertness, impulsiveness, attention, and hyperactivity.

Side effects of stimulants for ADHD include:

  • Dry mouth
  • Insomnia
  • Irritability
  • Decreased appetite and weight loss
  • Headaches
  • Tics
  • Jitteriness 
  • Racing heartbeat

Side effects of non-stimulant ADHD include the same side effects as stimulants along with:

  • Constipation
  • Sexual dysfunction
  • Dizziness
  • Nausea
  • Fatigue
  • Sweating 
  • Drowsiness 

Side Effects of Narcan (Naloxone) to Reverse Opioid Overdose

Addiction is a mental health concern that can be difficult to treat with medication. If you or a family member struggle with a drug addiction, one helpful medication to have on hand is Naloxone, or Narcan. Narcan is a drug that you can administer to help revive someone experiencing an opioid overdose. The drug kicks opioids out of the places they bind to in your brain. For many years, it was only available with a prescription, but at the end of March 2023, the FDA approved it to be sold over the counter. An older version of the drug is an injection, which works much like an epipen. Narcan is the brand name of the newer nasal spray formulation.

The side effects of Narcan are extremely limited. If the person you give it to does not have opioids in their system, it’s unlikely to have any effect. If the person does have opioids in their system when its administered, the drug can cause:

  • Pain, because it blocks any effect of opioids, even therapeutic ones
  • Withdrawal symptoms if the individual is dependent on opioids

Note: if you do administer Narcan to a person who appears to be overdosing, it’s important to also call 9-1-1 to ensure the care continues. Narcan only lasts about 30 minutes and is designed to bridge the gap while awaiting professional healthcare.

Side Effects of Suboxone and Methadone for Opioid Use Disorders

Suboxone (buprenorphine and naloxone) and methadone are drugs that help people with opioid use disorders manage withdrawal symptoms and cravings. The drugs cut the risk of overdose in half, and are often taken for years. Both buprenorphine and methadone are opioids themselves, but they work slower and last longer in your brain than the ones people might typically use and experience highs from such as oxycontin or heroin.

Many of the same risks of taking other opioids apply to buprenorphine and methadone. For example, you should not mix the drugs with alcohol or benzodiazepines, both of which can enhance their effects. If you do not take the drugs as directed, it is possible to overdose, even though the risk is lower than it is with other opioids.

Side effects of buprenorphine and methadone include:

  • Constipation 
  • Urinary retention
  • Slower breathing
  • Irregular heart rate
  • Drowsiness 
  • Dry mouth
  • lightheadedness

Side Effects of Naltrexone, Acamprosate and Other Drugs for Alcohol Use Disorders

There are three medications FDA has approved to help people with alcohol use disorders, although experts say they are underutilized. The first is naltrexone, which works by blocking the positive reinforcement you get from each drink in your brain. If you take naltrexone and then drink alcohol, you will still get intoxicated the same way you would without the drug, you’ll just be less inclined to drink heavily.

Side effects of naltrexone include:

  • Nausea
  • Liver irritation (You should avoid the drug if your liver is not healthy.)

It’s not quite as clear how acamprosate works, but it may exert a calming effect by acting on two inhibitory neurotransmitters in your brain, GABA and NMDA. The drug reduces your cravings, but, unlike naltrexone, it should not be mixed with alcohol. 

Side effects of acamprosate include:

  • Diarrhea
  • Nausea 
  • Depression and suicidal thoughts, rarely

Finally, there is Antabuse (disulfiram), which is used as a deterrent. If you take antabuse then drink alcohol, you will feel very sick. You may experience nausea, vomiting, and heart palpitations if you consume even a small amount of alcohol while taking the drug; the effects may last a few hours, or in some cases, up to two weeks.

Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation (TMS) for Depression or Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder

In 2008, TMS was first authorized by the FDA to treat major depression. While it did go through clinical trials, its approval pathway was through the de novo premarket review, which is used for novel, lower-risk devices. Several TMS devices are now on the market to treat depression. In 2013, one TMS device (Brainsway) got the FDA okay to treat migraine pain and, five years later, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD).

Your neurons normally communicate through chemical and electrical signals. Drugs usually address chemical imbalances, whereas TMS treats diseases with targeted magnetic signals. TMS uses electromagnetic coils embedded in a water-polo like cap worn on a patient’s head and attached to a machine to deliver electric impulses to brain cells. It’s not 100% clear how the treatment works, but its aim is to restore function in certain neural circuits. 

Side effects of TMS include:

  • Headaches
  • Anxiety 

The Risk of Dependence on Antidepressants or Anti-Anxieties

If you want to stop taking your antidepressants or anti-anxieties due to side effects or if you think you’re ready to manage your mental health without them, it might not be as easy as just not taking your pills anymore. Many people describe serious withdrawal symptoms and tapering off of the drugs over weeks, months, or even years. 

Crissi Estep knew that antidepressant medications are usually tapered before they’re discontinued. So, she developed her own tapering schedule: one day between doses, then two, until the medicine was gone. Severe withdrawal symptoms hit about five days after the medication cleared her system. 

“I genuinely thought I was having a heart attack,” Estep says. “I had chest pains and was shaky and nauseous. When I turned my head, it would swish, like water in a bowl.” Read more about Estep’s experience and how to taper off of antidepressants or antianxiety medicines. 

Due to the serious nature of the side effects of stopping the drugs, such as suicidal thoughts, it is best to work with your doctor to decide on a tapering method. It is not advised to simply stop taking the medication “cold turkey.”

Can Psychiatric Drugs Cause Insomnia? 

Antidepressants such as prozac are well-known for interrupting productive sleep, but many other psychiatric drugs can keep you up at night, cause vivid dreams, or jerk you awake. Read Do Your Psychiatric Drugs Keep You Up at Night? here, written by Karl Dohgrami, MD.

Can Marijuana Help Depression and Anxiety?

Marijuana and its derivatives, THC and CBD, have been hailed as potential cures for many ills. While many claims about the compounds may be overstated, there’s some support that the drugs may help with insomnia, anxiety, and PTSD. If you decide to give it a try, make sure to discuss it with your healthcare provider, since it could interact with any other medicines or supplements you’re taking.

Read more MedShadow Founder, Suzanne Robotti’s blog, The Problem with Weed.

Vitamins and Supplements for Anxiety

Vitamin deficiencies, like iron-deficiency anemia, can cause anxiety, depression, and other psychiatric symptoms, but even in the absence of a diagnosed vitamin deficiency, some people find that supplements help with their anxiety. 

Read MedShadow’s 7 Natural Remedies to Relieve Anxiety, which describes seven common choices and their potential side effects. If you decide to try supplements to ease your symptoms, remember to read the labels carefully, be aware of the risks of gummy vitamins, and let your healthcare provider know about anything you take, even over-the-counter, natural, or supplemental treatments.

Can Essential Oils Help Mental Health Conditions? 

Smelling certain essential oils, including lavender, rose, and valerian may help reduce stress and anxiety. Read MedShadow’s Surprising Side Effects of Essential Oils to learn how to enjoy them safely.

Tracking Your Symptoms

Because most mental health conditions can’t easily be tracked with blood tests, it’s important for you to keep track of your own symptoms. This can help you identify how well your treatments are working, when side effects of new treatments pop up, and even how big of a difference your daily habits like diet, exercise, sleep, and stress reduction can have on your body. Try one of these symptom trackers, or download MedShadow’s symptom tracker template.


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