More than a quarter of personal tutors have encountered students with "severe" or "life-threatening" problems in the past five years, according to a survey carried out by Hull University academics.
The survey, part of a larger study into student mental health, found that distressed students frequently rely on their supervisor or personal tutor for help, with only family and friends being cited more often.
However, many of the personal tutors who were surveyed said they lacked confidence in their ability to respond properly. The most common difficulty was the reluctance of students to acknowledge problems or to accept help.
Maintaining confidentiality was a recurring concern, and lack of time was cited by 10 per cent as a complicating factor.
"It was clear that academics frequently felt unsupported in their roles as personal tutors," says the survey report, which was written by Jill Manthorpe and Nicky Stanley of Hull's School of Community and Health Studies.
"Some lacked time to do the job adequately and were confused about conflicting demands placed upon them; some described difficulties in accessing help. Considerable numbers of academic staff feel ill-equipped to respond effectively."
The survey is part of a Higher Education Funding Council for England initiative to encourage provision for students with learning disabilities. It analysed responses from more than 400 academics with teaching responsibilities.
There were also focus-group interviews with students. These revealed that home and international students have similar concerns. Pressures contributing to mental health problems for both groups stemmed from relationship difficulties, feelings of isolation, academic pressures, financial difficulties and problems with accommodation.
International students presented particular challenges because of uncertainty about cultural norms. They frequently complained about shared living space and were particularly dismayed by levels of hygiene in student houses. Others said the predominant student culture centring around alcohol and pub life led to feelings of marginalisation.
Different learning and teaching styles also contributed to unhappiness, as did formal university welcomes and receptions.
The authors conclude that hitherto invisible mental health problems require a much higher profile within higher education and that personal tutors should be equipped with clear role definitions and guidance on systems of support.