Michael Phelps Says Therapy 'Saved' Him During His Darkest Moment: 'I Didn't Want to Be Alive'

The most decorated Olympian talks to PEOPLE about his struggles with depression and suicidal thoughts for Mental Health Awareness Month as an ambassador for Talkspace

28-time Olympic Medalist Swimmer Michael Phelps was among the advocates speaking at The Kennedy Forum National Summit On Mental Health Equity And Justice In Chicago at the Chicago Hilton and Tower Hotel on January 16, 2018 in Chicago, Illinois
Photo: Jeff Schear/Getty

Michael Phelps knows the cost of not getting help for mental health struggles.

"I found myself in a very dark spot in 2014," the former Olympic swimmer tells PEOPLE, referring to his second drunk driving arrest. "It was the lowest point that I have been to so far — I felt like I didn't want to be alive."

"At that moment, I felt like the best thing for me to do was just to end my life because I was causing other people so much pain — myself included," he says. "That's when I really decided that I needed help."

The 23-time gold medalist decided to take care of himself in a way he never had before.

"I checked myself into a treatment center, and afterward I continued to see a therapist because I saw how much it helped me lower my shoulders," he says. "It helped me feel comfortable in my own skin, to be my authentic self."

Since then, Phelps — who lives in Paradise Valley, Arizona, with his wife Nicole Johnson and their sons Boomer, 5; Beckett, 4; and Maverick, 2 — has become a mental health advocate, speaking candidly about his challenges with depression, anxiety and suicidal thoughts.

"Therapy saved my life," says Phelps, who is an ambassador for Talkspace, which offers virtual therapy and other behavioral health services. Its new "Permission Slip" campaign, which kicks off in May for Mental Health Awareness Month, encourages people to take a moment for themselves, to give themselves permission to prioritize their mental health.

For Phelps, that takes many forms. "Physical activity is a part of my self care," he says, adding that he works out seven days a week and lifts weights with Johnson three days a week. And he still swims: "Swimming is the one place where I can go and I can be myself, and I can let my mind escape," he says, adding that he never expected to be back in the pool after retiring.

When he's at home and faced with the stresses of parenting three young kids, Phelps has learned how to step away when emotions get intense. "I take time to myself, where I just go for five or 10 minutes, either into the office or into the bedroom. I just take peace and quiet. I regroup and I write some stuff down or do certain things to calm myself."

Phelps knows there are little people watching his every move. "My kids see my struggles — sometimes daily," he says. "I try to give them any tools that I can to help them get through their big, strong emotions."

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One of the those teachable tools is a "lion breath," says Phelps. "You basically just take a deep breath and roar like a lion. It helps them take a step back and lower their heart rate. It kind of removes them from the intense situation. And then they're able to talk about why they're upset."

He emphasizes that talking through problems with other people can be a life-saver. "To be able to talk about what you're feeling prevents you from carrying on that extra weight through life," he says. "I want my boys to be as prepared as they can be for whatever comes."

Phelps admits that he still has his ups and downs, but is in a better place overall. "I was always physically fit. Now I want to be mentally and physically fit. And if I can do both of those things, then I feel like I can conquer absolutely anything that's thrown at me."

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