Counsellors in further and higher education have reported a significant increase in the number of "seriously disturbed" students, a national survey has found.
Nearly one in six students seen by counsellors is in a suicidal state or has recently contemplated suicide, the survey commissioned by the Association of University and College Counsellors found.
Of more than 33,000 students who consulted counsellors this year, 15 per cent had "issues linked to suicide", 13 per cent suffered from anxiety disorders, 8 per cent were experiencing panic attacks, 7 per cent were self-harming and more than a third were suffering from depression.
Research Wise, which surveyed a fifth of further and higher education counselling services in the UK, said that rising student debt was partly to blame for the growing number of students with severe problems.
But researchers said that the increase in the number of students seeking help with emotional difficulties could also be a side-effect of widening participation.
Ewan Gillon, president of Research Wise, said: "We are seeing more students coming into colleges and universities who are perhaps less accustomed to coping with the pressures of study. They are also more likely to have financial problems or, in the case of mature students, have to cope with outside pressures as well."
The problems are particularly acute in further education colleges, which have been cutting back counselling services over the past few years in the face of a funding crisis.
Since 1996, the average number of counselling sessions required by student clients in further education has grown from 3.7 to 5.4. In old universities, the average number has increased from 4.6 to 5.2 in the same period, and in new universities from 4.4 to five.
John Cowley, senior student counsellor and chair of the Association of University and College Counsellors, said: "It is unfortunate that in many instances managers in the further education sector do not fully understand the value of counselling to students."
Counsellors in higher education colleges reported the highest proportion of seriously disturbed clients, with 69 per cent seeing at least one such student in the past year. Two-thirds of further education colleges and new universities and 47 per cent of old universities reported clients who were seriously disturbed.
Craig McDevitt, co-director of Edinburgh University's student counselling service, said: "The existing burden of student debt coupled with rapid expansion of colleges and campuses may well play their part in explaining some of the pressure on those in the system. But the result from this long-term survey is plain. Students are feeling the emotional and mental pinch as never before."