Jerry Short has come a long way from his past life. The 56-year-old Dorchester native, who spent 17 years in and out of jail, got into drugs at an early age.

"I got introduced to smoking...well I guess you'd call it freebase back then," he said. "And the pipe had me so mesmerized that it used to wake me up out my sleep and say 'feed me.' And I'd go out there and try to feed it."

It led him to a life he never wanted.

"I've been born and raised in these streets," he said. "After falling down, bumping my head several times, I realized there's more to life than that. So I chose to find out what makes me continue to do that crazy behavior."

What Short realized is that he was suffering from trauma.

Margaret Jackson is the clinical director at the Roxbury Multi-Service Center.

Margaret Jackson sits at her desk at Roxbury Mult-Service Center.
Esteban Bustillos WGBH News

She says out of all the people who come to the center seeking counseling help, 30-40% are diagnosed with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.

"A lot of PTSD diagnosis, people associate that with vets," she said.

And in recent years, understanding of the disorder has expanded beyond just soldiers returning from war.

"I don't think enough information is provided with understanding how a bonafide diagnosis of PTSD doesn't mean someone has to be a vet."

In areas where crime is an issue, Jackson says there's constant reminders that trigger people's traumatic memories.

"You hear some violence, someone's shouting at someone. It might remind you of an incident that happened from the street down from you or whatever," she explained. "So it brings back those kinds of memories and then you start to have nightmares. So you've got to get eight hours of sleep...but if you're sleeping only four to six hours of sleep and you're sleeping like that for a period of time, that becomes traumatic."

But Jackson said some people don't even think about the possibility they're suffering from PTSD. And some clinicians are still not giving a proper diagnosis to patients who need it, meaning the people who need help often aren't getting it.

"It's a curable mental disorder....and here we are, 2018, not having the community resources to help families," she said.

People can develop PTSD after experiencing a shocking or dangerous event. But broadly speaking, trauma can also come from a series of tiny, daily events that build over time.

Omar Reid is the president of the Black Mental Health Alliance of Massachusetts. He said trauma can be formed by various factors.

"People always equate trauma with violence. There's economic trauma, health trauma, mental health trauma," he said.

He said all of those factors and others add up over time and create what experts call intergenerational trauma. That trauma can manifest itself differently in different individuals.

"Some people they become numb, some people can't move, some people become more introverted or isolated," Reid said. "Trauma effects people differently."

Jerry Short knows that situation well. He said he has social anxiety when he's around large crowds, and he fears being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

"If I'm not working, if I'm not in school, I'm in the house," he said. "And I'm a grown man."

He has trouble sleeping and feels a sense of "survivor's guilt." Lots of the friends he grew up with couldn't get their lives on track like he could.

But now he's trying to give back.

He's one semester away from completing a master's degree at Cambridge College so he can become a licensed mental health counselor, though he's been in the counseling field for nearly 11 years and focuses on working with children and young people.

"I'm not proud of the things that I did in these streets. And this is my way of giving back, of making retributions for my past sins," he said.

Short said there's still a stigma around seeking out mental health help. His hope is by working with young people, that can be reversed early on. "If we can get them at a young age, there's room for change."