“He was able to overcome so many things, but the death of Julian was just a breaking point for him in a lot of ways,” Stephanie Sloane, editorial director of Soap Opera Digest, tells PEOPLE of St. John, who died Sunday at age 52.
The soap star and ex-wife Mia’s son Julian died by suicide on Nov. 23, 2014, at the age of 24 following a lifelong battle with mental illness. He was reportedly found unresponsive in the bathroom of a Long Beach, California, facility.
In a 2013 Soap Opera Digest interview, St. John discussed Julian’s struggles.
“My son, Julian, has been suffering from a drug addiction for some years now and has also been diagnosed schizophrenic. Unfortunately, he doesn’t take his medication, which disallows a daily health routine,” he said. “Quite often, people who suffer from bipolar disorder self-medicate because they refused to take their pharmaceutical drugs, so we have had our issues. Poor boy felt that the local park was more of a home than his mother’s home or mine, based on the relationship he has with a certain female, and I can’t condone that relationship. I never thought my son would be the kid at the gas station with the gas can trying to get a couple of dollars out of somebody for a bogus story, and this is where Julian is.”
Still, the actor was proud of Julian’s work as an artist.
“He is expressing himself through his artwork, which has been recognized in the past year by a few prominent galleries, so there’s hope,” he said.
The actor had also had his own issues with a parent. St. John was estranged from his mother, Arlene, throughout his life. They had just reconnected after 20 years when she died of an aneurysm in 2012.
“My mom was white and my dad’s black and her parents never accepted that relationship – or me, ” he told Soap Opera Digest. “Her family was racist and the man Arlene later married was also racist, so we never had the relationship that we were both desperate to have.”
And in 2011, St. John was arrested and charged with driving under the influence.
“What I learned was that you have to get back up and keep moving forward,” he said in the Soap Opera Digest feature. “To understand the gravity of drinking and getting behind the wheel, for me, came from getting arrested and taken to jail. Now, I won’t step into the car with keys after having any kind of cocktail; it’s not worth it. It’s hard enough driving in this town 100 percent sober, you add drinking, texting, anything to distract, you’re putting yourself and other people in great jeopardy. So I’ve learned my lesson. You’re not going to see me on that DUI list ever again.”
Then, in 2017, St. John underwent psychiatric treatment after a reported scare regarding his mental health. According to TMZ, he threatened to kill himself with a gun and was placed under a 72-hour hold for psychiatric evaluation.
The incident shed light on St. John’s “private pain,” says Sloane, who had known the actor for over 25 years.
“My thoughts in 2017 were, ‘Wow, you don’t know the private pain that people go through,’ ” Sloane says. “He was so loving and not afraid to show it, but I think that just proves that you never really can know someone’s pain — even though Kristoff actually shared a lot of his suffering with the world. He would be so brutally honest about the trials and tribulations he’d been through in his life and with his children.”
The Los Angeles County Medical Examiner-Coroner confirmed to PEOPLE on Monday that St. John was found dead at a home in Woodland Hills on Sunday. He was pronounced deceased at 4:02 p.m.
“It’s shocking in terms of the person I would see when we’d be together, but then also just sort of sad in light of the stories he’d tell us over the years,” Sloane says. “The response to this will be heartbreak. He was close to so many people, or at least so many people felt such a connection to him.”
“He had a smile that lit up the room,” she adds. “You could not see him for a year and it would be like you had seen him yesterday. He was so warm and welcoming and he had such a good energy about him.”
She adds that St. John, who had played Neil Winters on the CBS soap since 1991, leaves behind an important legacy.
“The impact of the Winters family on Y&R, it’s been the strongest African American family, consistently, for almost 30 years on soap operas,” Sloane says. “That they’ve been able to sustain it, and have him be such a driving force of it — it says a lot about Kristoff as a force within the industry, and to his talent. He’s had two Emmy nominations in just the past few years. It’s devastating to not only the cast and crew of Y&R but to the whole daytime industry. It’s the saddest end to his life story.”
St. John is survived by his fiancée, Kseniya Mikhaleva, as well as daughter Paris with Mia and daughter Lola with ex-wife Allana Nadal.
If you or someone you know is considering suicide, please contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255), text “home” to the Crisis Text Line at 741-741 or go to suicidepreventionlifeline.org.