An End to Discrimination Against People With Mental Health Problems - A Proper Legacy for the Paralympics

12/09/2012 23:58 BST | Updated 12/11/2012 10:12 GMT

The Paralympics were a fantastic spectacle, showcasing the incredible sporting achievements of people with disabilities from across the world. What really struck me about this year's games, was the way in which the British public took them into their hearts with unprecedented enthusiasm. Having been praised as "the greatest ever" by International Committee chairman Sir Philip Craven, it feels as though a turning point has been reached when it comes to attitudes towards disability.

I first saw for myself, the amazing power sport has to knock the "dis" out of disability in the 1970s, when I supported my disabled brother at our wonderful local disabled swimming club Solihull Seals.

It took my breath away to see people whose movement was so restricted on land, transformed in the water. To this day, swimming has remained something which gives my brother enormous pleasure, and way of staying physically fit and engaged in a mainstream activity.

The Paralympic tradition has played a vital role in transforming attitudes towards people with disability over many years, from people who cannot do things, to people who can play a full and equal role in society.

As well as enjoying the games, it's vital we consider the legacy we want them to leave. To me, the ambition should be to make Britain the best place in the world to live if you have a disability, regardless of whether that disability as a result of a mental or a physical condition.

Against this backdrop, it seems apt that MPs will have an historic opportunity this week to scrap some of the last remaining laws which actively discriminate against people with mental health problems.

The Mental Health Discrimination Bill will get its second reading in the house on Friday (14 September) and if voted through, will put an end to outdated laws which interfere with the rights of people with mental health problems from participating in jury service and becoming or remaining a company director. Current laws also stipulate that MPs themselves will lose their seats if sectioned under the Mental Health Act, regardless of recovery.

The legislation changes this and seeks to remove the arbitrary exclusion of people from roles of responsibility on the grounds they are undergoing treatment for a mental illness. That is not to say there are not occasions when someone who has mental illness may have to stand down from a role due to the impact of their illness. The same would be true of someone with a physical condition such as cancer. It is the arbitrary exclusion of a group of people, irrespective of individual circumstances, that is totally unacceptable.

If passed, this Bill will send a powerful signal that discrimination on the grounds of someone's mental health has no place in the 21st century.

Anyone who has lived with a mental illness will know that discrimination and the negative attitudes of others can be one of the most disabling features of their condition. These attitudes can impact on many areas of people's lives such as relationships with families and friends, social activities, the chance of getting and keeping a job and relationships with public services and authorities. Just as painfully, they can affect the individual themselves by diminishing their self-confidence and limiting their ambitions.

I was particularly struck recently when meeting with a panel of young people who are supporting the Time to Change anti-stigma campaign , to hear the particular effect negative attitudes can have on young people and how that can corrosively impact on educational and other prospects.

Stigma and discrimination are not unique amongst disabled people to those with mental health problems. Many groups experience their own issues but it is fair to say that the invisible nature of mental illness and society's traditional fear and ignorance of it, have made it harder to make progress in changing attitudes.

In recent years the tide has begun to turn. Time to Change, now in its second phase, has helped generate a positive shift in attitudes. Others have also played a part such as employers like BT who are regarded as a beacon for positive practice when it comes to promoting mental wellbeing amongst their workforce.

Celebrities such as Gail Porter and Catherine Zeta-Jones as well as sport personalities and MPs have also helped change perceptions of mental illness by speaking out about their own experiences. Alongside this, many thousands of ordinary people are now feeling more able to be open about their mental health - although there is still a long way to go.

If we are to turn this shift attitudes into law, it's essential MPs support the Mental Health Discrimination Bill. How can it be right, at a time when we are fighting to challenge public attitudes, for discrimination to still be enshrined in law?

The Paralympics has boldly made the statement that there should be no pre-ordained limit on what disabled people are able to achieve.

Hopefully they will also lead to a greater investment in disabled sport which will benefit not just elite athletes but the many thousands of disabled people, like my brother, for whom sport has been the key to social inclusion.

In the same way, I hope that the Mental Health Discrimination Bill will mark another milestone in the battle to challenge negative views of what people with a mental illness can achieve.