The most decorated Olympian of all time was honored Wednesday for his mental health advocacy at the Hope for Depression Research Foundation’s annual luncheon in N.Y.C.
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Michael Phelps, the winningest swimmer of all time, has nothing but praise for Simone Biles, widely-regarded as the gymnastics G.O.A.T., for sharing her mental health struggles with the world when she withdrew from events at the Tokyo Olympics this past summer.

"As somebody who's struggled with depression and anxiety," Phelps tells PEOPLE, Biles "opening up and talking about mental health is a big, powerful step forward toward blowing the stigma out of the water. It's more powerful than we can imagine."

"When you watch the Olympics and you see somebody like Simone Biles go through what she went through, I think it probably took a lot of people by surprise," he says.

Adds the 36-year-old, "A lot of people may not understand how mental health works and how it's not really like a switch that you can turn on and off. It comes and goes whenever it really wants to."

Simone Biles; Michael Phelps
Credit: Craig Barritt/Getty Images; Joe Scarnici/Getty Images

Phelps, the most decorated Olympian in history, spoke to PEOPLE Wednesday when he was honored with the 2021 Hope Award for Depression Advocacy at the Hope for Depression Research Foundation's annual luncheon at the Plaza Hotel in New York.

Incredible Photos From the Summer Olympics Through the Years
Michael Phelps
| Credit: MARTIN BUREAU/AFP via Getty Images

The former athlete won the award for being one of the first — and most prominent — athletes to open up about his own challenges with depression and for starting the Michael Phelps Foundation in 2008, which encourages young people to embrace healthy living, both mental and physical.

Many people are still afraid to admit they are grappling with mental illness, for fear of being labeled or stigmatized, he says.

"How do we get the help that people need?" he says. "We just need more people to open up and continue to break this wall down."

He says he's more than happy to help others understand it's okay to ask for help when struggling. "It's bigger than anything I ever have done in the pool," he says. "Being able to have the opportunity to help somebody and potentially save their life, is absolutely everything because I know what that feels like to not want to be alive."

Despite the challenges he faces with his depression every single day, he says, "I'm happy in the skin that I'm in. It shows that hard work does pay off."

The hard work also includes sticking to a routine of getting enough sleep, eating well and working out.

Without the effort, he says, "I wouldn't be able to sit here and have three amazing kids and a beautiful family and, you know, a dream come true."

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Nowadays he enjoys life at home in Arizona with his wife, Nicole, and their three boys: Boomer, 5, Beckett, 3, and Maverick, 2.

Michael Phelps family
Michael Phelps family
| Credit: Nicole Phelps/Instagram

"She's absolutely everything for me," he says about wife Nicole. "I've been able to truly find my best friend, somebody who's seen me on my best days and my worst days and so far, she hasn't run yet.

"I'm very lucky and my kids are just incredible," he says. "It's been a fun journey and I look forward to where they're going to take us next. We're always on our toes. They're always having us laugh."

Keeping up with them can be as challenging as swimming in a 400-meter race, though, he admits.

"The energy level is always extremely high with three boys," he says. "Even though they press my buttons sometimes harder than any other human beings, I love them to death. I would do anything for them."

If you or someone you know needs mental health help, text "STRENGTH" to the Crisis Text Line at 741-741 to be connected to a certified crisis counselor.