Holly Hunt spoke to former professional footballer Dean Hooper about how he has been promoting mental wellbeing through his new venture and by talking about his own struggles with mental illness.
This year, the number of current and former footballers accessing mental health services has inevitably seen a spike during post-lockdown periods.
In September, the Professional Footballers’ Association reported that 464 of its members had received counselling to date, with 653 being the 2019 total.
Dean Hooper is one such individual who has reached out to the players’ union during these isolated times. Like many, the former Swindon and Peterborough defender found himself struggling and his mental wellbeing deteriorating.
“I felt uneasy and had that dark mood come across me,” he explained. “It came out of nowhere. There was no reason as such. I just had a real blip.
“I’m very fortunate because I’m an ex-professional footballer so I put the call in almost immediately to the PFA. They have looked after me for the last couple of years. I’ve suffered for 30-odd years and I’ve never really had that professional help until recently.”
Life hasn’t been easy for the former full-back, who spoke candidly about his battle with bipolar disorder, grief and post-traumatic stress disorder; cards which he’s kept close to his chest for many years.
“I got sexually abused when I was 15,” he acknowledged. “Then, at 17, I fell in love with a girl and she fell pregnant but, unfortunately, she had a miscarriage. I had a broken heart. It’s a lot to take on at that age.”
The sequence of events ultimately led to a nervous breakdown and he turned to drink and drugs, which only acted as a catalyst for his as yet undetected bipolar disorder.
Hooper, who was playing for Hendon’s youth team at the time, was smoking cannabis on a daily basis and when that didn’t take away the pain or the memory of the assault, he tried ecstasy.
It wasn’t long before he was sectioned in a high-security hospital and sharing his space with serial killers.
“I ended up at a secure unit at 19 years old. I was in with murderers and psychopaths,” he said. “People were always throwing tables around.”
Pinned down by four male nurses in the back of an ambulance as he was escorted to Ealing Hospital, he experienced a traumatic flashback to his early childhood, which caused him to act out in self-defence.
“When I got entered into the hospital, I’d taken an LSD tab,” he conceded. “I think I was trying to lose myself with what had happened to me.
“They whipped my belt off and held me down on the floor. I was restrained. Because of what happened to me at an early age, I had to fight back and I broke the doctor’s nose.”
His gruff tones crack as he recalls the “horrendous” ordeal.
“The three months I spent in there were hell on earth. I got locked up in a padded cell and I was in isolation. That was [a] straightjacket and injections.
“I had little hope of living, let alone playing football.”
Despite thinking his career was over and his dreams were dead in the water, the former non-league defender did pull on his boots again, in a tournament with his fellow inpatients.
“We played five-a-side and I couldn’t even move my legs. It was so frustrating. The medication they gave me meant I had no control in my limbs.
“One of the male nurses was playing alongside me. I turned to him and said, ‘I will be a professional footballer one day.’ I can still hear his laugh now. It gave me the determination I needed.”
After hiring one of London’s best psychiatrists for a private assessment, it was his dad who bought back his freedom.
He found it hard to adjust to the real world again but Hooper did get back on track, reluctantly. He was three stone overweight and playing for a local pub team before he made his return to the non-league scene. In a twist of fate, he soon had a list of suitors lining up for his signature.
“I was playing for Hayes and we played Marlow, who had Swindon in an FA Cup game. I had a good game and the scouts came to the next game. It snowballed from then and I had three or four clubs watching me.”
He penned his first five-figure professional contract with recently relegated Swindon Town in March 1995 and Hooper wells up just thinking about it.Embed from Getty Images
“It brings tears to my eyes. Especially for my dad, who always believed in me. It was a long journey. Those four years seemed [like] forever.”
But it still wasn’t all plain sailing and his past continued to haunt him. Chants of ‘psycho’ from supporters would reach him out on the pitch.
“I had a panic attack at Swindon on my debut,” he recalled. “It was a full house with 20,000 people there against Norwich in a pre-season friendly.
“It was my first start and I didn’t know until the day of the game I was in the squad. I had a nightmare. It’s the only time I’ve been glad to be dragged off the pitch.”
That year, the Robins were promoted to the second tier and the day after the title-clinching game against Chesterfield, Hooper was picked to play in a reserve fixture, having found game time hard to come by in Wiltshire.
However, he was forced to withdraw through injury, finding himself in some discomfort after clashing with his own goalkeeper.
“I nearly died on the pitch,” he said, matter-of-factly. “We’d just won the old Division Two and the physio and the doctor had been drinking. They said I was just winded, so I went to the toilet.”
The club’s physio hadn’t noticed that the player had actually punctured his lung.
The keeper’s knee had broken his ribs but while his team-mates were out on the pitch, nobody knew Hooper was writhing around in pain on the changing room floor, fighting for air.
“I got in the bath and vomited blood. I could hardly breathe and I was blue in the face. I’d snapped my ribs and one went in my lung.
“My dad came out the stand and an ambulance was called. The next thing I know I was in hospital for two weeks. That ended my respect for that club. It turned sour in the end.”
He refused a winner’s medal on the basis that he’d hadn’t played much of a part in the Robins’ promotion and found himself dropping back into the semi-professional game.
And it wasn’t until he moved to Peterborough United, aged 27, on a permanent deal in the late ’90s that he was told he was bipolar; a condition that was in the genes.
“Always in the background, there was that doubt,” he admitted. “Just before I joined Peterborough, it was the stress of that which brought it on. It took a second bout of [poor] mental health for them to diagnose me.
“I found out my great-grandfather suffered and my granddad. It seems to be on my dad’s side. Although, one of my close relatives had a blip two years ago and they were sectioned themselves, which was heavy to take. I had to revisit those emotions.”
However, he’d finally found a club he could call home. The Harefield-born right-back made more than 100 appearances for the Posh between 1998 and 2002. He was handed the captain’s armband and even earned a cap for his country.
“Barry Fry understood me. I had four good years there and I matured as a person.
“I represented England, which was a fantastic moment. I’m very proud of that, even though it was semi-professional [in the C team]. To hear the national anthem sends shivers down your spine. My dad had just passed away as well so there was that emotion.”
It was during the challenging lockdown period that he turned to former Aldershot team-mate Dominic Sterling, who provided much-needed support.
“He’s been a huge influence,” he said. “We’re talking about 20 years ago that we played together and we regularly travelled together since we lived in the same area but he knew nothing of my personal story then.
“About five years ago when I was coming through my difficult journey, he picked me up from thereon. We’ve connected on a deeper level.
“I have Dom and other people around me that I can lean on now. I can’t speak highly enough of him. We’ve looked after each other.”
In November of this year, the two set up Football Flow – a mental health service provision with the mission to destigmatise mental health and address the knowledge gap.
Flow – an acronym for ‘Fundamental Learning On Wellbeing’ – provides one-to-one resilience coaching, training and consultancy from grassroots to the Premier League, and not just for playing staff.
“We travel to players and go to see them if we can, but the lockdown hasn’t allowed us to do that. It’s a bit awkward because you’ve got to manage their feelings on the whole lockdown scenario but you can’t have that eye-to-eye impact and see if their body language matches the words that they say, which makes a huge difference as opposed to a Zoom or telephone call, or worse still, text.
“This whole period is going to highlight a lot of people’s mental health with the anxiety aspect. It’s the unknown and the uncertain; nobody really knows what’s going on.”
Although exercise alone isn’t the antidote, he stressed that the fresh air and being around family has buoyed his mood of late.
“I got involved with a charity that does football and walking. My ankle isn’t brilliant through football so walking is my thing. I wouldn’t say it will cure it [mental health] but it certainly curbs it.
“I went back home too because I wanted to be close to my family. My wife and I split two years ago but she’s been an absolute rock and knows me better than anybody else. We met when we were 17 and she’s seen the whole journey.”
Two decades on from his ordeal and the footballer, now 49, has two children of his own. He’s ready to tell his story about his trials, tribulations and triumphs if it can help in some small capacity to make a difference to the lives of others.