"I would love to be able to help people because I know how hard it is," Craig Conover tells PEOPLE

By Dave Quinn
May 22, 2019 05:47 PM

Craig Conover is getting honest about his mental health.

In a candid sit-down with PEOPLE from Charleston, South Carolina, bar Bourbon and Bubbles, the Southern Charm star looks back on the end of his three-year relationship with Naomie Olindo — admitting that he only realized afterwards that he was “100 percent depressed.”

“I have a whole new respect for it, because it does cripple you,” says Conover, 30. “I’ve never been depressed before, and I didn’t understand it. I didn’t now how bad it was until I got on the other side.”

As proof, Conover points to his Charleston home, which — as Southern Charm fans are aware — was a complete mess. “You see my home on the show, and when I saw that watching it back, I was like, ‘Is this really what my house looked like?’ Because I didn’t see it. I was living in shambles and that’s how I was feeling, too. It was bad, I’m not going to lie.”

To get through it, Conover find solace in an unlikely place: the Bahamas.

He first traveled to the tropical locale to clear his head from the drama stemming from the show and open up his dating pool a bit. “After the reunion last year, I realized I clearly had a lot more anger towards Naomi than I thought I was having,” Conover confesses. “The breakup didn’t make sense to me, I just couldn’t … my brain wasn’t really able to make sense out of it.”

And he watched as Olindo, 26, went public with new boyfriend Metul Shah.

“I knew I needed to move on, and was ready, but after 11 years [in Charleston], the dating circle gets really small. And I found myself liking people that were also friends with Naomi and it just didn’t work. I was like, ‘I got to get out of town and travel!’ ”

Craig Conover
| Credit: Tommaso Boddi/WireImage

A trip to New York allowed Craig to realize “another world outside of Charleston exists.” But when he went to Bimini with friend and Southern Charm producer Whitney Sudler-Smith, he fell in love.

“I just felt happiness,” he says, explaining he stuck around and traveled throughout the Bahamas before settling on a spot in Marsh Harbour. “The energy down there was awesome. I wasn’t in a horrible spot, I just was happy for the first time in a while. I just felt healthy. And it was there that I read about depression and realized I shared basically all of the symptoms and the problems with it. It was because of the breakup and the year of you know, the tumultuous relationship that I was feeling this way. So I flew back home, packed up two massive suitcases, and returned for another two months.”

The experience, which included daily swimming trips and spear-fishing, proved “cleansing” for Conover. “I got to take a step back and laugh at myself. I finally just hit that phase of being over stuff. I got to be a part of nature again and just reminded myself who I was.”

Eventually, Conover healed and was able to see his way through the pain. Once he was there, he knew it was time to come home.

“I was just like, ‘I’m good.’ And I was able to come back to Charleston with a whole fresh start. I was invigorated to be like, ‘Let’s get your s— back together,’ ” he recalls. “It’s funny because it was definitely running away, which some people say is not an answer, but it worked for me.”

He’s cleaned up his house now (with the help of an interior designer), and has gotten himself a long-term lease down there, where he is currently doing “two weeks on and two weeks off.”

“I’m much better now — it ebbs and flows, but I feel great,” he says.

In the end, Conover hopes he inspires those around him to grab hold of their mental health.

“I have no shame,” he says. “I don’t have a problem talking about it. … I would love to be able to help people [with my story] because I know how hard it is.”

Craig Conover and Austen Kroll
| Credit: Ben Trivett

At least one person is inspired by his journey: Southern Charm costar Austen Kroll.

“I give Craig a lot of credit,” says Kroll, 31. “He could have done the ‘get over someone, get under someone else’ thing, but he took the time to travel and get his mind off it and really get himself right. I respect that.”

“The older that you get, the more you are subjected to anxiety and depression,” Kroll notes. “I never thought about this stuff 10 years ago, but all of a sudden something scary is a lot of stuff is real. It’s like a real thing.”

Southern Charm airs Wednesdays (8 p.m. ET) on Bravo.