Study on PhD student wellbeing: positive psychology interventions

I look back on my PhD as one of the best periods of my life. It was very demanding but I enjoyed the sense of ownership and progression, and I had a great ‘family’ of other PhD-ers around me. I watched some of my peers really struggle though, with all kinds of things including having family to care for, difficult supervisors and a general lack of motivation. I too found it an overwhelming emotional burden at times. However, I had already acquired certain skills and resilience to manage this. I’ve always been fairly good at self-motivation and I tried to look after myself with regular yoga, meditation and exercise.

At the beginning of 2016 I was employed on a three-month research project on doctoral student wellbeing and access to support. Our findings have recently been published in the Journal of Higher Education Policy and Management. Immediately after the research post ended I was pleased to be employed with student services at the University of Southampton to work on the implementation of recommendations arising from the project. This included the launch of a ‘5-Ways to Wellbeing’ campaign, new PhD support website, mindfulness classes and a draft of recommendations for supervisors. An earlier draft of our journal paper included an in-depth look at recommendations for supporting student wellbeing. It draws on the positive psychology literature to discuss resilience-building activities. Because it was cut from the paper I thought I publish some of this missing section myself here! But first, some context –

Student mental health is a pressing concern and whilst much of the emphasis has been on undergraduate students, a few studies have turned their attention to postgraduate students. We might expect that, being fully-fledged adults, PhD students are better equipped to deal with academic demands. However, when you consider that a full-time PhD usually lasts at least three years, requires a huge sustained mental effort, involves working alone or at least isolated in your thoughts, and leads to a very precarious job situation at the end, you can see why people struggle. On top of that, you’re at the age where you might have children to look after, want a mortgage and see your friends in well-paid ‘normal’ jobs. Many people now do PhD’s part-time whilst working, eurgh! Many leave their home country/city to do their PhD. And everyone, at some point, feels totally and utterly stupid.

The mental health of Flemish doctoral students was highlighted in a recent academic study (Levecque et al 2017). The data found 51 per cent of students had experienced at least two symptoms of poor mental health over the course of their research degree, and 40 per cent, three or more symptoms. Work-life balance was the strongest indicator of psychological distress according to Levecque et al’s study, closely followed by job demands (i.e. workload). This same study found that doctoral students were significantly more likely to be affected by poor mental health than the highly educated general population, highly educated employees, and higher education students in total. Our own study, which you can read about in the paper, found a prevalence of anxiety, stress and depression. 20% of our students said they’d been to their doctor about feelings of mental distress since starting their PhD and more than 10% had attended counselling. We concluded that the university needed a more proactive stance on mental health. Drawing on Positive Psychology was a fruitful approach to develop ideas for building resilience; thoughts outlined below:

Positive psychology reinforces the notion that psychological capital can build on an individuals’ strengths in order to provide the resources needed to form positive outcomes in ones’ relationships, wellbeing, academic and professional success. A focus on wellbeing, and thus psychological capital, has been increasing in the workplace over the last decade. Positive Psychological capital (PsyCap) is defined as:

“an individual’s positive psychological state of development characterized by: (1) having confidence (self-efficacy) to take on and put in the necessary effort to succeed at challenging tasks; (2) making a positive attribution (optimism) about succeeding now and in the future; (3) persevering toward the goals, and when necessary, redirecting paths to goals (hope) in order to succeed; and (4) when beset by problems and adversity, sustaining and bouncing back and even beyond (resilience) to attain success” (Luthans, Youssef, et al., 2007, p. 3).

The discipline of positive psychology has three main concerns, understanding positive emotions, understanding positive individual traits and understanding positive institutions. This triad encompasses the holistic, joined up approach we believe is necessary for doctoral student support. As an example, positive emotions have been found to momentarily improve individual performance and broaden thought-action repertoires responsible for building enduring personal resources. With performance seemingly key to researcher wellbeing, it seems reasonable to assume that promoting positive emotions can improve doctoral experiences and thus success.

Positive psychology interventions (PPIs) are treatment methods or intentional activities that aim to cultivate positive feelings, behaviours, or cognitions. PPIs can, according to Donaldson et al (2015), be categorised into five key areas; mindfulness and meditation based, coaching interventions, strength-based interventions, affect-based interventions and gratitude interventions. They can be delivered on an individual basis, in groups or online. I will now focus on the first three here, starting with mindfulness and meditation.

Mindfulness is a popular intervention and its status as a recognised wellbeing technique has increased hugely in recent years. It includes various methods such as yoga meditation, mindfulness based cognitive behavioural therapy and stress-management programmes. Structured mindfulness training delivered as an incremental course has been found to have positive effects on stress management, resilience and subjective wellbeing in a range of groups, including students. Doctoral researchers in our focus groups asked for more opportunities to take part in mindfulness training. The challenge comes in offering this to a wide range of students with limited institutional resources, and in encouraging students to stay for the 8-week course. Such initiatives need to be embedded in cultural change whereby students (and staff) understand the benefits of taking proactive steps to support their mental health.

Another PPI highlighted by Donaldson et al (2015) is coaching interventions. Most of these were rooted in what they call a solution-based cognitive model; identifying areas of ones’ life that could be improved through dedicated steps. In a higher education setting we are more likely to refer to coaching as mentoring, again something raised in the focus groups as a preferred method of dedicated doctoral support. As a PPI, coaching has been found to increase cognitive resilience and hope, increase goal attainment and related feelings of wellbeing and enhance self-motivation and engagement.

The final PPI I wish to focus on is Strength-based intervention. This is about focusing on stengths rather than weaknesses. Proyer et al (2015) shun the term weakness completely, in favour of ‘lesser strengths’. The study found that focusing interventions on character strengths improved happiness and ameliorated feelings of depression. They used a list of 24 character strengths, suggesting that every individual possesses three to seven strengths that characterise them best. Focusing on activities that use these strengths promote excitement, increasing life-satisfaction, self-awareness and long-term wellbeing. This seems particularly interesting to consider in the case of doctoral researchers, who are often plagued with self-doubt and peer comparison. Strength-based interventions could be incorporated organically into postgraduate teacher training, benefiting both the doctoral student and their students.

Personally, I can’t imagine my life without yoga. I also practice general mindfulness and Autogenic Training. I learnt long ago to focus on what I have achieved rather than what I haven’t, and I know that stress is bad for my health and indeed my productivity so I try not to let things get to me!

Donaldson, S.I., Dollwet, M. and Rao, M.A. (2015) Happiness, excellence, and optimal human functioning revisited: Examining the peer-reviewed literature linked to positive psychology, The Journal of Positive Psychology, 10:3, 185-195

Levecque, K., Ansel, F., Beuckelaer, A., Van der Heyden, J. and Gisle, L. 2017. Work organization and mental health problems in PhD students. Research Policy, 46: 868-879

Luthans, F., Youssef, C. M., and Avolio, B. J. (2007). Psychological capital: Developing the human competitive edge. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press

Proyer, R.T., Gander, F., Wellenzohn, S. and Ruch, W. (2015) Strengths-based positive psychology interventions: a randomized placebo-controlled online trial on long-term effects for a signature strengths- vs. a lesser strengths-intervention. Frontiers in Psychology, 6, 456

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Parliament launched a review into the environmental impact of the fast fashion industry: here’s why it won’t work

The UK fashion industry contributes more than £28 billion to national GDP but not without consequences. A new Parliamentary inquiry is examining the social and environmental impact of the huge fast fashion industry, focusing on the environmental footprint of clothing throughout its lifecycle. The review was launched in June and is taking comments and evidence from the public until September 2018. It is chaired by Mary Creagh MP, Chair of the Environmental Audit Committee. Speaking on behalf of the committee, Mary said: “Our inquiry will look at how the fashion industry can remodel itself to be both thriving and sustainable.”

This raises a few questions for me:
• Does the industry want to remodel itself and if so, to what extent?
• How much remodelling are we talking about here? Isn’t fast fashion inherently unsustainable?
• Could/should a Parliamentary inquiry lead to more Government enforced regulation?

The inquiry will examine the carbon, resource use and water footprint of clothing throughout its lifecycle. It will look at how clothes can be recycled, and waste and pollution reduced. This is all because it’s obvious that circulating clothing through our wardrobes at the speed to which fast fashion retailers would like means a whole lot of resources, wastage and pollution.

So why not address the consumption model itself? Changes to address singular problems will not lead to significant benefits without addressing the economic system surrounding fast fashion and consumer culture. A focus on decreasing the environmental impact of fast fashion is only part of the issue, the bigger problem is consumer habits. Stores like H&M and New Look are doing good things to help make their impact less bad but ultimately, they still want to sell a lot of clothes. You’ve seen those in-store recycling bins in H&M, TKMaxx and M&S? This works to divert guilt – ours and theirs – but really sends a message that consumers can keep on consuming so long as they donate their unwanted clothes to charity (there are problems with this in itself as shipping our cast-offs to low income countries has been found to harm local employment and manufacturing industries).

Don’t get me wrong, the review is welcome and every change helps, but if we’re really talking about doing things differently an environmental impact audit isn’t the starting point. It’s the fast fashion model that needs to change and this is very, very difficult when the UK is run on a stifling model of capitalism. Success is based on economic impact – we need to earn a wage and we need to consume. Government doesn’t want to interfere with that if it upsets business. The fashion industry itself is a huge employer and source of creative and service (not manufacturing) export. Various strands need to come together to change the system. Some of these are:

• Education, education, education. I’ve written about this before and not just for fashion students but for all students there should be a focus on sustainability, CSR and alternative measures of growth incorporated into learning at all levels. Normalising a different way of working and living will filter into their own consumption habits as well as their work, and it’s already happening.
• Designers need to take more responsibility for resource use. Waste should be a massive taboo; closed loop production should be prioritised.
• Cultural change needs to come from the media, both mainstream and social media, to continue to shift the focus to experiences rather than material consumption and possession. While advertising works as it does this is unlikely to lead to a complete shift.

Sustainability is about viewing a problem holistically, something that needs to be taken into consideration with this Parliamentary review. Fast fashion is inherently unsustainable unless we think outside the box, like changing the look of our clothes digitally or designing pieces that are ‘throw-away’ in a different sense by being completely biodegradable. And why not?

Want to have your say? The Committee invites submissions by 5pm on Monday, 3 September 2018.

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How Vegan Footwear is Revolutionizing the Fashion Industry

Guest post from The Lux Authority

When shopping for high fashion accessories, fashionistas have often sought apparel made from leather, suede, silk, and fur. The sleek feel, softness, and fit of leather made it highly desirable in the fashion world. The functionality of leather and fur can provide warmth without bulkiness for athletic types and nature lovers. Silk has been coveted for hundreds of years due to its smoothness on the skin and lustre to the eye, but unfortunately, the fashion industry’s gain is the animal world’s loss. In the past, for a majority of the fashion conscious, there was just nothing else like the fit and feel of genuine animal products. Fortunately, that has changed. At the request of the growing numbers of vegans and others adopting a more sustainable lifestyle, more designers are creating beautiful, stylish, and kinder alternatives to clothing made at the cost of animals and the environment.

As an increasing number of people are choosing a vegetarian or vegan lifestyle, there is a greater need for vegan options for fashionable clothing. For many years, artificial leather, suede, and fur were available, but they didn’t have the same look or feel as the real thing. Appearances are important, making it difficult to be able to be socially and environmentally responsible while looking great in haute couture. For far too long, it was nearly impossible to find cute, cruelty-free shoes. But now, vegan footwear is revolutionizing the fashion industry.

The vegan footwear brand, VEERAH, knows what it means to reduce and reuse. Why wastefully buy several different pairs of shoes, when you can make one pair look and function like many? Each pair of shoes purchased comes with a coordinating accessory such as a strap, tassel, brooch, or even fringe to change the style of the shoe from plain to fancy and casual to dressy. VEERAH straps can serve double-duty as fashionable bracelets. Their new long-lasting, durable shoe line, Appeel, is made using recycled apple skins to create a fabric more breathable than leather to lead the way in the slow fashion movement.

VEERAH Shoe Set

Bourgeois Boheme also creates beautiful shoes from plant based products. Many of this British company’s high-end, luxury shoes are made from Pinatex, a textile derived from pineapple leaf fibers that remain and otherwise become waste after the pineapples have been harvested. Even legendary Italian fashion house Salvatore Ferragamo has been influenced by the movement of using plant-based alternatives to more traditional fabrics. Famous for creating leather substitutes due to the lack of availability of the real thing during wartime, the company has released a collection in collaboration with Orange Fiber, a company specializing in making textiles from citrus skin. These textiles can replace lace, silk, and satin.

Another company making leather substitutes is Mycoworks. Using mycelium found on the underside of mushrooms, Mycoworks creates a fabric with the appearance and performance of leather. Not only can this be useful in creating vegan footwear, but similar technology can be used to make fabric that is thin enough for other clothing such as, dresses and jackets. The fabric is naturally antimicrobial and compostable making it eco friendly and sustainable in addition to being vegan.

These innovations in vegan products that were initially inspired by dreams of cute vegan footwear have led many celebrities and designers to move to an animal-free fashion philosophy. A growing list of vegan celebrities, including Zooey Deschanel and Jessica Chastian, have chosen to walk the red carpet in animal-free couture. Both Natalie Portman and Anne Hathaway have chosen to be photographed wearing shoes from vegan footwear brand Beyond Skin. Stella McCartney has led the way for many other brands, such as MIAKODA and Cri de Couer, to eliminate animal products from their lines and adopt a more eco-friendly and sustainable approach to fashion.

Beyond Skin Martha Shoe

An increase in the number of people who wish to live responsible, sustainable lifestyles combined with a desire to look good while doing it has led to a revolution in the fashion industry. Leading the way is the innovative vegan footwear industry. In an attempt to get the benefits of textiles made from animal products without the cruelty, vegan shoes just might help save the world.

Kelsey is the Managing Editor at The Lux Authority and is trying to balance both her budget and her credit card balance. She likes to live lavish and treat herself when the opportunity allows it. She loves the newest tech, old cars, the smell of rich mahogany, and leather-bound books as well! When she isn’t working, Kelsey is an avid academic, artist, stargazer, blogger, and yoga enthusiast.

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Plastic Free Friday!

Earlier this year Friends of the Earth launched Plastic Free Friday. Buoyed by public awareness of the dangers of excessive plastic consumption, Plastic Free Friday asks us to ditch the single use plastic for at least one day a week. Sounds simple, right?

Plastic pollution has been a key public concern in recent months/years, with the award-winning series Blue Planet commended for raising public awareness across the globe. The 5p consumer levy for plastic bags, started in England in 2015, was a turning point in consumer awareness; making most of us at least more conscious about our plastic footprint. The number of plastic bags handed out by supermarkets in England in 2014 stood at 7.64 billion – 200 million more than in 2013. Since the levy, the use of single-use bags has decreased by 90%. Now a report by the UN states that more than 50 nations have pledged to cut their plastic pollution. The report also outlines 35 potential plastic substitutes, presenting solutions to the problem of single use plastic.

As well as being a global concern, plastic pollution is something we are all responsible for. Friends of the Earth’s campaign is a great starting point for cutting down on single use plastic. Here are some tips and tricks to get you started:

1. Take your own shopping bags to avoid the single-use plastic ones.

2. Morning tea drinker? Check that your tea bags are plastic-free or switch to loose leaf. Several tea bags use polypropylene to seal the bags.

3. Pack your own lunch box to avoid buying a sandwich on the high street, and remember to take your re-usable mug for caffeine on the go. ECOlunchbox have a great range of plastic-free lunch box solutions.

4. Buying dinner? Buy fresh, loose veggies from the market or supermarket. See if there is a wholefoods store near you that sells loose food cupboard essentials to carry away in brown bags or your own reusable containers (rice, spices etc).

5. For post-work cocktails, tell the bartender to ditch the straw. Or at home (or even to take one with you) Poppy Bee make reusable stainless steel straws to replace their plastic cousins. Poppy Bee UK sent me their straws to try out (see said Friday night G&T above) and I am definitely a convert. They are the only LFGB certified reusable straws on the market (i.e. strictly tested for safe human use) and come with a cleaning brush, as well as being dishwasher safe. Buy them on Amazon.

Join the conversation at #PlasticFreeFriday

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Fair Trade Clothing – The Pros and Cons

A guest post by Michael Williams
Fair trade clothing is a growing niche within a larger offering of ethical clothing. As a concept, the primary focus is on equality and fairness for the people involved in production.

Although this article focuses on Fairtrade, there are other factors that buyers of ethical products need to consider, these include organic clothing, second hand clothing, recycled clothing, and clothing that protects factory workers, such as those accredited to the Fairwear Foundation standards. It is important not to automatically assume that because a clothing product is Fairtrade certified, it is also organic, sustainable, and ethical in ways outside the remit of the Fairtrade Foundation.

What is Fairtrade?
Fairtrade is a global movement that has been in existence for a number of decades, with the aim of improving the conditions for workers of raw materials in less developed nations. It also looks to provide better pay and more opportunities for these people. It does this by using a minimum price that the raw materials must be bought for, with a “social premium” added on top to help fund schools, and other projects that improve the lives of those in the local community.

Fairtrade is governed by the World Fair Trade Organisation (WFTO) and its network of “fair trade organisations” in different countries. In the UK, this job is given to the Fairtrade Foundation, who provides certification (the labels you see on Fairtrade certified products).

Fairtrade’s remit focuses mainly on the working conditions of producers of raw materials, like cotton, rather than environmental standards or working conditions in factories. Fairtrade also prevents the use of some pesticides, which has a secondary environmental benefit, but the primary motivation for this is to protect the workers’ health. It’s important to be aware that when you see a Fairtrade label on a cotton t-shirt, for example, it will only be the raw material fibre that is certified Fairtrade, not necessarily the whole garment (i.e. not the manufacturing process).

What isn’t Fairtrade?
Fairtrade isn’t a magic label that solves all of the world’s problems. It is a great tool to work towards that goal, but shouldn’t be considered in isolation. When considering ethical/sustainable clothing, you should also consider these factors:
• Is it Organic?
• Is it produced in factories that have good environmental records (eg. do they use renewable energy/minimise their pollution)?
• Are the factory workers protected?

When you buy a Fairtrade product, don’t assume these 3 things are protected too. The Fairtrade label only covers the workers that produce the raw material, although it would be nice to think that it’s probably more likely at least something is being done within the supply chain for these other elements.

What makes clothing “Fairtrade”?
Fairtrade clothing is made from materials that are Fairtrade certified, nearly always this means cotton. However, it doesn’t mean that it contains only 100% Fairtrade cotton, for example many clothing products are made blends such as 80% cotton, 20% polyester. Given that synthetic materials can’t be grown on a Fairtrade certified farm, this means that only the cotton will be Fairtrade.

The Pros
• The Fairtrade brand is one of the most well known ethical labels in the world, so you can be sure it’s genuine.
• Fairtrade clothing is usually of a higher quality (to match the higher price).
• This higher quality often feels and fits better.
• Fairtrade clothing can be useful for businesses to help them be more socially responsible.
• Some environmental benefits from less pesticide use.
• You get a warm fuzzy feeling when you buy it.*

The Cons
• Fairtrade clothing usually costs more (but you might be ok with that).
• Despite its growing demand, the supply is still lacking. You will have to look a bit harder to find Fairtrade clothing.
• Fairtrade isn’t a magic pill; you need to look at other ethical factors too.
• The minimum price for raw materials is often below market values, making it redundant (the farmers will get the market rate if it’s higher).
• You get a warm fuzzy feeling when you buy it.*

*The Warm Fuzzy Feeling
When you buy ethical products, including Fairtrade clothing you get a nice, warm, fuzzy feeling inside, knowing that your purchase has done some good in the world. Except consumer purchasing doesn’t necessarily make a big impact. Sushil Mohan discussed the limited impacts of a single consumer purchase in his book: Fair Trade Without the Froth.

Conclusion
Fairtrade is a great way to improve the imbalance within the global supply chains, by no means is it a magic pill, and it should be considered within the wider group of ethical accreditations. It costs a little more, but if you’re looking for ethical products then this difference probably doesn’t matter to you. Whilst it’s not perfect, it is definitely better than nothing.

About the author
Michael Williams is a writer and marketing professional with a keen interest in sustainability and the environment. This work often sees him writing bids for organisations, particularly assisting with their social value offerings.

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Say it with a t-shirt: the new political discourse in ethical fashion

Bee Maverick Tee, Deborah Campbell, £32. Fair Wear certified, £5 donation to Womens Aid

On 17th April I went to an ethical fashion and beauty event hosted by Southampton Solent University Fashion student, Anna Macken. The PR event, developed for part of Anna’s final major project, showcased four fantastic ethical fashion or beauty brands. Know the Origin and Willow Beauty both presented their products at the event, along with Deborah Campbell Atelier and Maison de Choup. Representing the latter two brands in person were the two respective founders, and listening to the two founders deliver talks to the audience, a common theme rose to the fore. Both were producing garments in a responsible manner, but, more than that, they both wanted to say something through their designs. Unlike some creative endeavours, these messages weren’t meant to be subtle fashion statements; both brands were using slogan tees to take a stand.

Slogan t-shirts aren’t new. Although Katharine Hamnet is often hailed responsible for popularising the radical slogan tee in the 1980s, clothing had been used to silently demonstrate political standing earlier than that. T-shirts are universal items: democratic, cheap, and unisex. They are the perfect canvas to communicate something more. High fashion designers were incorporating political ideas into their collections in the 1970s (think Vivienne Westwood) and more recently, Dior sent a model wearing a ‘We should all be feminists’ t-shirt down the catwalk, directly referencing Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s ‘We should all be feminists’ book. It seems, when Maria Grazia Chiuri became the first female artistic director of Dior in 2016 she wanted to make her mark. The feminist tee certainly did that, but not for all the right reasons (plenty complained about the undemocratic price tag of £500). That aside, Dior’s t-shirt perfectly encapsulated the mood of the moment. Clothing could once more be used to political effect.

Fortunately, Deborah Campbell Atelier and Maison de Choup come in at a more accessible price tag than Dior, and with a more interesting profile for that matter. Their founders are driven by purpose, integrity and creativity. After years working in the fast fashion industry, Deborah Campbell started her eponymous brand by producing beautiful printed dresses, tops and skirts drawing on the work of contemporary artists. Her current focus lies in statement t-shirts and charity collaborations. Deborah works with the Bumble Bee Conservation Trust and Women’s Aid. The latter charity inspired her ‘Future Female’ campaign – a range of ‘Future Female’ tops and corresponding blog championing gender equality.

Future Female tee, Deborah Campbell

Deborah says: “Future Female promotes every day gender equality through conversation. I became aware of casual sexism, and soft mysogynistic behaviour after hearing Emma Watson launch the #heforshe campaign and I really started listening to every day conversation. And what I heard was, littered with casual sexism and stereotyping that holds women and men back. The need to change the everyday is key because I believe these small changes in behaviour and attitude will lead to bigger changes and women and men will begin to see freedom from gender in-equality and we will see humans evolve to be more united”.

The impact of everyday conversation can’t be underestimated. What we wear can be a conversation starter, and so can what we post on social media. Deborah has made the most of these platforms to create her own movement, using her fashion brand as a springboard. It’s a feature reflected in the mission of Maison de Choup. Maison de Choup, also at the Southampton event, was founded for a specific reason – not to produce fashion per se, but to lift the taboo on mental health. Conceived in 2014, Maison de Choup is the creation of George Hodgson – a young artist who found the strength to be able to draw something positive from his own struggles with mental health. T-shirts adorned with slogans such as ‘Warrior not worrier’ and ‘Words fail me’ have touched the hearts of many as the profile of mental health has increased in public discourse. Maison de Choup works with many charities and offers a percentage of proceeds to YoungMinds.

Maison de Choup is taking a stand on mental health

Both brands use organic cotton and ethical sourcing to develop their respective ranges. One might have expected them to talk about this at the ethical fashion event, but they didn’t. They didn’t because they have so much more to say than that. Sustainable sourcing was taken as a given, and these passionate founders want to use their products to say more. Fashion has always been a vehicle to communicate and it’s interesting to see true ethical fashion merge with other worthy causes. Whether you call it fashion, politics, ethics or culture, more and more of us (propelled by social media) are using clothing as a platform for debate. With this trend, ethical fashion is taking on a whole new meaning.

https://maisondechoup.co.uk/
https://www.deborahcampbellatelier.com/

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