Why Do Women Find Drug Rehab Help Less Frequently Than Men?

Addiction meeting

There are many differences between the genders when it comes to drug abuse and treatment. For example, more men use drugs than women. That’s true for overall statistics and also true when it comes to the use of most individual drugs, although there are just a few exceptions.

When it comes to treatment, more men who need treatment receive it than women who need treatment. Are there any clear reasons for these differences?

Gender-Based Drug Abuse Statistics

Every year, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) completes surveys on the use of illicit drugs and the misuse of prescription drugs. Tens of thousands of Americans are included in this survey that paints a detailed picture of our national problems with drugs.

In 2021, here were the percentages of American males and females 12 and older who were current drug users (used in the past 30 days).

Current drug users, ages 12 and older, 2021

  • Males 16.3%
  • Females 12.4%

At other times, there has been more separation between these genders. Compare those numbers to the survey results from 2011.

Current drug users, ages 12 and older, 2011

  • Males 11.1%
  • Females 6.5%

As you can see, not only is the percentage of people using drugs significantly higher in 2021, but women are catching up. In 2011, the statistic for women was only 59% of the statistic for men. In 2021, however, the women’s statistic was 76% of the men’s statistic.

Men and Women Aged 18 to 25

The years between 18 and 25 are the prime years for any type of drug abuse. This group’s higher rate of drug abuse is reflected in the statistics from the 2021 National Survey on Drug Use and Health.

Past month illicit drug use 2021, ages 18 to 25

  • Men 26.9%
  • Women 23.7%

Past month marijuana use 2021, ages 18 to 25

  • Men 26.1%
  • Women 22.2%

Young Men and Women, Ages 12 to 17

In some specific categories, more young women were drug users than were young men. Here are some examples.

In 2021, among young people ages 12-17, more young women used illicit drugs in the past month than young men.

Past month illicit drug use 2021

  • Female 7.9%
  • Male 6.3%

For comparison, in 2011, more young men used illicit drugs than women but the numbers were close.

Past month illicit drug use 2011

  • Male 10.8%
  • Female 9.3%

In 2021, females in this age range misused a prescription pain reliever in the past year far more frequently than young men.

Past year misusers of prescription pain relievers 2021

  • Female 298,000
  • Male 199,000

Males and Females, All ages, 12 and older

For sedatives and tranquilizers, females also had higher numbers than males for current (past 30 days) use.

Current misusers of sedatives and tranquilizers 2021

  • Female 735,000
  • Male 638,000

Women Entering Drug Rehab Programs, 2020

depressed woman

The most recent statistics for drug rehabilitation show that women find drug treatment far less frequently than men. The following statistics were published in the 2020 Treatment Episode Data Set from SAMHSA.

  • That year, 64.9% of treatment admissions were male, but males made up only 49% of the population.
  • Only 35.1% of admissions were women.
  • In 2020, 918,299 men entered some kind of publicly-funded drug rehabilitation program for either drug or alcohol addiction.
  • Only 497,175 women found their way into a program.

If the proportion of men and women who used drugs were applied to the number who entered rehab, that would mean that 697,000 women should have had access to drug rehab. (That's 76% of the number of men entering rehab, the same percentage as the number of female drug users compared to male drug users.)

The statistics for men entering treatment were higher for alcohol and every type of drug. The only statistic that was close between males and females was for sedative addiction treatment.

Why Is There So Much Difference in Treatment Statistics?

Opinions vary. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse:

Research has shown that women often use drugs differently, respond to drugs differently, and can have unique obstacles to effective treatment as simple as not being able to find child care or being prescribed treatment that has not been adequately tested on women.

SAMHSA also provides this input:

Some women are motivated to address their {substance use disorder] by entering and completing treatment because of their roles as mothers and caregivers… However, some women may fear the legal or social ramifications of engaging in treatment while pregnant and parenting.

SAMHSA also notes the special vulnerabilities of women who are using drugs or alcohol or are addicted to them.

Consequences of substance use for women include physical complications, the risk of losing custody of children under their care, and exposure to partner violence. Women develop physiological complications from substance use, especially alcohol, in a shorter time and with lower consumption than men… Reproductive consequences for pregnant women may include fetal alcohol spectrum disorders, long-term cognitive deficits, low birth weight, or miscarriage.

SAMHSA further notes that women’s drug rehab programs should consider these vulnerabilities when the program is designed. Women’s programs should therefore include:

  • Relational approaches that take into consideration positive and negative familial and partner influences and relationships, and promote a safe and caring treatment environment
  • Treatment programs that integrate the whole person, including family and parenting responsibilities.
  • Trauma-informed approaches that include screening and assessing women for trauma history.
  • Provider recognition of women’s cultural expectations to help improve engagement and retention in treatment programs.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services notes:

Many women facing opioid addiction are either pregnant or caring for children and face a number of social, structural and economic barriers in accessing treatment. In recent years, clinicians and policymakers have become increasingly interested in supporting substance use treatment approaches that provide comprehensive services to pregnant and parenting women and their family members and recognized the women's role as primary caregivers.

Additionally, the following factors make seeking drug rehab a struggle for women:

Significant barriers that keep women drug abusers from seeking treatment are their emotionality, or rather, their problems with coping with unpleasant feelings, such as shame and helplessness, guilt, and lowered self-esteem, feelings of loneliness, severe anxiety, depressive states, permanent stress and other emotional disorders, and, above all, low competence in coping with these unpleasant states and the abuse of drugs to suppress these states and the subjective sense of benefit resulting from their reduction.

While many of these problems affect both men and women, women may face even more ostracism and stigmatization than men as a result of their addictions which can compound the effects of these problems.

For that reason, families and charitable organizations that assist the addicted would be wise to take special care to reach out in an understanding manner to help women struggling with addiction. If there are children involved, families and extended families are invaluable in the recovery process.

As women are very often the primary caregivers for children, and as the health of unborn babies and infants depends on the health of the mother, women should minimally have equal access to drug rehabilitation.

Few people recover from addiction all by themselves. The support of family, friends and effective rehab programs has always been and will always be essential to the lasting recovery of millions of people, both men and women.


  • “2021 National Survey on Drug Use and Health.” Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, 2022. SAMHSA
  • “2011 National Survey on Drug Use and Health.” Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, 2012. SAMHSA
  • “2020 Treatment Episode Data Set.” Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, 2020. SAMHSA
  • “Sex and Gender Differences in Substance Use.” National Institute on Drug Abuse, 2020. NIDA
  • “Addressing the Specific Needs of Women for Treatment of Substance Abuse.” Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, 2021. SAMHSA
  • “State Policy Levers for Expanding Family-Centered Medication-Assisted Treatment.” U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 2019. HHS
  • “Helping Women Suffering from Drug Addiction: Needs, Barriers, and Challenges.” National Library of Medicine, 2022. NLM


Karen Hadley

For more than a decade, Karen has been researching and writing about drug trafficking, drug abuse, addiction and recovery. She has also studied and written about policy issues related to drug treatment.