The number of students displaying suicidal tendencies has shown a huge increase, says a mental health survey published this week.
And there are fears that the drive to get more people into education is partly to blame, with non-traditional students less able to cope with the stress of going to college.
The annual survey, published by the Association for University and College Counselling, says student distress has "strongly increased".
Fifteen per cent of the 33,000 students in universities and colleges who sought counselling had contemplated suicide. This represents a 5 per cent increase on last year.
Two-thirds of counsellors in further and higher education said the proportion of "seriously disturbed" students had increased over the past year. Many now going to college had previously felt excluded. But some had found it difficult to adjust to the demands of study. In addition they might have money problems and domestic responsibilities which added to the pressures.
The survey says that universities have lost 10.8 per cent of their budgets since the mid-90s. But it has been much worse in FE, where there has been a 38 per cent reduction in funds.
Dr Ewan Gillon, who managed the project for the association, said things were definitely getting worse: "Average numbers of sessions per student are increasing and a significant proportion of clients are presenting with severe levels of emotional disturbance.
"It is interesting that this is taking place while increasing numbers of students from non-traditional backgrounds are entering further and higher education. It would seem likely that such widening participation is having an effect on student mental health."
Lewisham college, south London, is increasing counselling services. Principal Ruth Silver said: "We are reaching deep into shadow parts of the community - people in prison or bail hostels, referral units and those excluded from school. We have to know how to help these students."
But Annette Zera, principal of Tower Hamlets college, east London, said the survey was unbalanced: "Look at the appalling attrition rate at Cambridge. These are middle-class, white, mainly ex-public school people who just buckle under."
Many referrals to counsellors take place through personal advisers provided by Connexions. Its chief executive Anne Weinstock said: "I think that young people are under a lot of pressure in a world where the only thing that is certain is uncertainty. There is an issue around getting mental health services up to speed. If someone feeling desperate has to wait 12 months to get referred, they could have killed themselves by then."
Liz Allen, national official of Natfhe, the lecturers' union, said these were extremely stressful times for students and the staff responsible for their pastoral care.
"We are struggling to support an increasingly diverse range of students - more under-16s in FE, single parents, people suffering from discrimination - most of whom have fear of mounting debt."
John Cowley, chair of the association, said student counselling was essential as help in the community was often difficult to obtain.